The holiday season is the most magical time of year — the air seems a bit crisper and every town shines a little brighter. The Christmas cheer is undeniably infectious regardless of where you are, but there are several places throughout the country that feel particularly joyful — this is especially so in some of America’s festive small towns.
This adorable small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains was recreated after a Bavarian alpine village, and while it’s home to only about 500 residents, the town sees about 2 million visitors each year. During the holidays Helen becomes even more charming. There’s a Lighting of the Village that happens at the end of November, where the town center is lit up by Mr. and Mrs. Claus. There’s also a Christkindlmarkt that opens, and an annual Christmas parade with a bonfire and s’mores!
Step back in time during the holidays in Nevada City, where they do the holidays right by hosting a Victorian Christmas. On certain days in December people are encouraged to dress in Victorian attire along with the carolers to take part in sharing holiday cheer. On these select days there are plenty of vendors to explore and various activities to enjoy, from carriage rides to Yuletide beverages, and a visit from Father Christmas.
Known as “Christmas Town USA,” the name says it all for this small town in North Carolina. The official Christmas lighting ceremony is December 1, but the lights stay on to be seen by all who visit throughout the holiday season.
The under-the-radar town of Skaneateles in New York’s Finger Lakes region is home to an old-timey Dickens Christmas. Every weekend after Thanksgiving through December 23, over 50 characters from Charles Dicken’s novels (and Dickens himself, too) come alive to interact with the town. Some characters who make annual visits include: Queen Victoria, Father Christmas, Scrooge, Tiny Tim, the Spirit of Christmas Past, and the Ghost of Jacob Marley. Farm stores will open to sell trees and wreaths, roasted chestnuts will be available for snacking, and carolers will be caroling.
Florida’s historic small town of Saint Augustine puts on a stunning lighting event every night from November 19 through the end of January called Nights of Lights. During this time, the district’s downtown businesses stay open a bit later than usual to give guests and residents the opportunity to enjoy the gorgeous scenery of the historic buildings all lit up against the night sky.
Williamsburg, Virginia, puts on a festive yet historical holiday celebration that follows traditions dating back to the 18th century. One such tradition is the lighting of a single candle in the windows of each home during the holiday season. However, new traditions are also celebrated in places like Busch Gardens Christmas Town, where over 10 million light bulbs illuminate the park, and in the fireworks display known as the Grand Illumination.
In Ouray, one of the most underrated small towns in America, the holidays are celebrated for seven weeks during WinterFest. From Thanksgiving until the Annual Ouray Ice Festival in January, the town puts on an array of events to partake in. There’s carols and hot cocoa, a Yule Night and Christmas Parade, a Noel Night, a wine, chocolate and cheese festival, and plenty more. It’s the holiday town that keeps on giving.
This picture-perfect town in Georgia might be a destination you haven’t considered for vacation, but it’s a magical place to be during the holidays. The Dahlonega Old-Fashioned Christmas is a celebration of the season with various holiday shows taking place throughout the month along with live entertainment, a festive parade, and the annual Lighting of the Square.
Everyone’s bucket list should include seeing the famous Biltmore Estates during the holiday season. The decorations are spectacular and shine as bright as the rest of the town, which is covered in millions of dazzling lights.
In Natchitoches, the holiday season officially kicks off the weekend before Thanksgiving and lasts into January. During this six-week long celebration, this top small town for holiday lights puts on a Festival of Lights and Christmas Festival that keeps the holiday cheer going strong; along with the display of over 300,000 lights and 100 set pieces that bring the city to life every evening.
Known as “The Christmas City” where it’s Yuletide year-round, Bethlehem has no shortage of holiday-related festivities, from a “Live Advent Calendar” to Christmas-themed carriage ride tours. Visitors will be able to see historic parts of the city decorated as it would have been in the 1700s and 1800s — and what is a holiday season without an enchanting Christkindlmarkt?
The beach town of Portsmouth celebrates the holidays with a monthlong Vintage Christmas. Along with the winter skating, holiday-themed musical, tree lighting parade, and old-timey tours, Portsmouth is also home to an Annual Gingerbread House Contest that lasts the duration of the season.
This cute town in South Alabama turns into a snowy Candyland every weekend in December. The downtown area transforms into a winter wonderland with fake snow but very real merriment. In Candyland visitors can explore adorable cottages as well as snow tubing, ice skating, snow shows, and light shows.
In “America’s Christmas Tree City” holiday celebrations last for two whole months. From the day after Halloween until New Year’s Day, the magic of Christmas is in full swing. There’s a lineup of live holiday performances, the Branson Scenic Railway’s Polar Express Train Ride, and an Old Time Christmas festival where nearly 6.5 million lights adorn the city and 1,000 decorated Christmas trees are displayed.
Thomasville’s Victorian Christmas celebration invites visitors and residents to venture into the past and “stroll the bricks or take a carriage ride.” On December 13 and 14, the Downtown area is reimagined as a turn-of-the-century town with Victorian dressed singers, carriage rides, cobbled streets, and chestnut roasting among other things.
Of course a town named after ol’ Saint Nick is a winter wonderland year round, but Santa Claus, Indiana, really is an amazing sight at Christmas. In addition to festivities at Holiday World, the annual Land of Lights in Santa Claus tells the endearing story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a bright, 1.2-mile stretch.
It may be Christmas all year round at the North Pole, but during the holiday season it’s particularly festive. Here they celebrate with a Christmas in Ice where spectacular ice sculptures are illuminated with lights of all colors for six weeks. Next to the sculpture is the Santa Claus House where you can get a photo with Mr. Claus and see his reindeer.
Home to the world’s largest Christmas store, it’s only natural that Frankenmuth be a festive holiday town. This town celebrates the magic of Christmas all year round, but during the holiday season Frankenmuth shines even brighter.
A Village of Lights is what people call this beautiful mountain town during Christmas time. Here the holiday season is celebrated with Christmas lighting festivals that last three weeks, during which the entire town of Leavenworth is completely lit up.
In the West Coast town of Dana Point, the holidays are celebrated with a beautiful boat parade. Celebrating for the 44th year, the theme of this year’s parade is “A Western Wonderland.” Boaters create spectacular displays each year to compete for various awards like Most Colorful or Best Animation, and the countless lights they use to decorate their boats give the harbor an enchanting holiday glow.
This small town in Pennsylvania transforms into an authentic outdoor German Christkindl Market each year, with over 100 huts. It’s only open for three days (December 13 through 15), but it’s well worth the visit!
Every year for the holidays Wheeling, West Virginia, hosts a spectacular Festival of Lights. It’s a tradition the town has participated in since 1985, and this year it will feature new 3D “Sleigh Bans” — holographic eyewear that “transforms every point of light into a magical display,” according to the event’s description. For this festival, over a million LED lights take over 300 acres and 90 attractions.
The downtown area of Cambridge, Ohio, is transformed into a Dickens Victorian Village specifically for the holiday season, making it a great place to spend Christmas. The area is covered with lifelike figures that recreate over 92 Dickens scenes with characters that include everyone from Tiny Tim and Father Christmas to carolers, street peddlers, and lamplighters. The charming town also celebrates the holidays with stunning light shows that take over the entire facade of the courthouse. The spectacle features 36 animated displays with 30,000 lights in total that are synched to a holiday soundtrack to create four different shows every night full of some of the brightest Christmas lights displays you’ve ever seen.
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