- April Hunt For the AJC
From quaint town squares aglow in twinkling lights in New England to carriage rides alongside Louisiana lakes, small towns near and far really capture the magic of Christmas.
As you’re planning your winter wonderland adventures, you may be looking for a short drive (or a long one) to towns that have the most holiday spirit.
If that’s your goal, there is an endless number of towns that go all out for the holidays.
Asheville, North Carolina. For formal events, the Biltmore Estate is dressed up in ribbons, lights and other finery for an annual Christmas celebration from Nov. 3 to Jan. 7. For a more outdoorsy tradition, the Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum features nearly 500,000 LED lights placed throughout gardens and holiday-inspired cocoa, cider and beers.
Cambridge, Ohio. From November through mid-January, the downtown of this Ohio city in the Appalachian Plateau turns itself into the Dickens Victorian Village. The walking tour features 92 scenes of life in 1850s England. The modern era comes to life every evening, with an 8- to 12-minute light show, synchronized to holiday music, which bathes the town's historic (1881) courthouse in 30,000 lights.
Greenville, South Carolina. Just up Interstate 85 is a Christmas-light strewn downtown that includes pop-up retail shops, the St. Francis Foundation Festival of Trees and open-air skating at Ice on Main. Opening Thanksgiving night and running through Dec. 30, the Roper Mountain Holiday Lights also offers a walking tour, Santa Claus and a 1.5-mile drive with 72 glittering displays.
Helen, Georgia. Come November, this re-created Alpine village sheds the lederhosen (leather pants for men) and readies the lebkuchen (essentially German gingerbread) and other holiday treats. The holidays start with Festival of Trees, which takes the highest bid on decorated trees and wreaths between Nov. 19 and Dec. 9. The Christkindlmarkt, a traditional German market featuring gifts and food, runs Dec. 2-3 and Dec. 9-10.
Laguna Beach, California. Palm trees can be just as festive as snowy firs given the way this Southern California beach city does Christmas. Think spotting migrating whales instead of scanning the skies for reindeer. Or embrace the arts scene here with the annual Sawdust Winter Fantasy, which features thousands of holiday decorations and hand-crafted jewelry, ceramics and other artwork in addition to outdoor cafes, a petting zoo and, of course, Santa.
Natchitoches, Louisiana. The Natchitoches Christmas lights up the city of 18,000 people with more than 300,000 lights and 100 set pieces downtown and along the Cane River Lake. The aptly named Festival of Lights opens Nov. 18 with free admission to all events and fireworks show that night. Other events during the festival, which runs through Jan. 6, 2018, includes a parade on Dec. 2, arts and crafts that celebrate the town's Creole heritage, carriage rides and historic home tours.
Ogunquit, Maine. The annual Christmas by the Sea festival features bonfires on the beach, hayrides, caroling and a living manger, in addition to traditional caroling and arts and crafts. The brave can also attempt a Polar Bear plunge into the Atlantic Ocean if they dare.
St. Augustine, Florida. Some three million lights adorn every corner of the nation's oldest city during Nights of Lights. Based on the Spanish tradition of lighting a single candle in a window of every home, the lights illuminate the cobblestone streets and iconic Bridge of Lions, in addition to shops and restaurants. Aside from self-guided walking tours, visitors can explore by bicycle, in horse-and-carriage and the city's Old Town Trolley.
Santa Claus, Ind. Living up to its name, this tiny town of 2,500 people celebrates Christmas all year long, so when the holiday season finally rolls around, it is strapped for its all-out extravaganza between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Among the Santa Claus events: a chance to roast chestnuts on an open fire, a 5K race, dinner with Santa and a drive-thru LED light adventure that tells the shining story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Taos, N.M. Yuletide in Taos may sound like the traditional tree lighting and craft fairs, and this high desert town delivers that. However, at sunset on Christmas Eve, the Native American settlement Taos Pueblo leads the Procession of the Virgin, with bonfires and rifle salutes from the top of 1,000-year-old adobe buildings. On Christmas Day, the Matachinas Dance features an ancient Native American ceremonial dance that can only be seen in person, captured on video or film.
Woodstock, Vt. The charming colonial architecture and a historic village green draw tourists year-round to this picturesque small town. But the Wassail Weekend, Dec. 8-10, is the iconic sound and sight of winter New England: sleigh bells and the clip-clop of horses signal the holiday parade, while carolers traipse through town as visitors stroll between historic homes and a craft fair or line up for wagon and sleigh rides.
Williamsburg, Va. Visitors to Williamsburg can taste the holidays the colonial settler way, with roasted turkeys, ham and biscuits and sweet and savory puddings. More modern day festivities, such as a light show and Santa sightings, are also on hand in the historic town and surrounding area.