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Cozy twinkling lights, classic carols, comforting traditions — there’s nothing quite like the holiday season. This year, as the world continues to contend with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, necessary adjustments have been made to the traditional holiday celebrations we’re accustomed to. But cities and towns across the country (and the world) are making sure that the Christmas spirit lives on in a safe, and still magical, way.
From storybook mansions to unbelievable light displays, historical reenactments, and other festive affairs, these 20 cities and towns in the U.S. take Christmas to a new level. Read on and get ready to feel all the warm fuzzies of the season.
Big Spring, Texas
When you think of the holidays, a white winter wonderland is likely one of the first images that comes to mind. But snow certainly isn’t a requirement for having lots of Christmas spirit — just ask the people of Big Spring, Texas. Residents take pride in their temperate southern city being known as the Lighted Poinsettia Capital of Texas. The title comes from the stunning illuminated displays in the annual Comanche Trail Festival of Lights, a beloved local spectacle that features more than a million lights — including larger-than-life twinkly poinsettia creations. For an extra dose of Texan Christmas coziness, check out Big Spring’s historic Hotel Settles and its festive lobby adorned with a massive Christmas tree every year.
Branson is a popular year-round tourist destination thanks to its famous live music and entertainment scene. But this city in the Ozarks also happens to be a top-notch Christmas destination, kicking off celebrations in early November and carrying through the New Year. Known as “America’s Christmas Tree City,” Branson features a trail of more than 700 trees ranging from traditionally decorated evergreens, to mechanically designed light shows, and eccentric original creations made from wine bottles, library books, and go-kart tires. If the tree trail doesn’t give you your festive fill, there are several other light shows to take in, including Let There Be Lights!, Branson's Lights of Joy, and the awe-inspiring An Old Time Christmas festival at the town’s Silver City amusement park. For one last dose of holiday whimsy, hop aboard the Polar Express Train Ride, a beloved Branson tradition inspired by the popular movie of the same name.
Duluth’s holiday celebrations are an annual winter highlight for many Minnesotans. The season starts with the Christmas City of the North Parade, a celebration now in its sixth decade of elaborate floats, marching bands, dancers, and regular appearances by Santa Claus himself. From there, holiday revelers can climb aboard the decked-out Christmas City Express for a scenic train ride to Lake Superior with hot chocolate, cookies, and classic holiday tunes. But Duluth’s Christmas spirit really kicks into high gear with the Bentleyville Tour of Lights, America’s largest free walk-through light display, featuring intricate themed displays made up of more than four million brilliant lights.
Need your Christmas fix in July? Head to this Bavarian-inspired Michigan city where Yuletide is celebrated year-round. The main attraction is the massive Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland store, which takes up the space of one-and-a-half football fields. Here, you can shop for gifts, decor, and bespoke ornaments, painted while you grab a bite from the Season's Eatings snack bar. Make sure you stick around until after dark, when Bronner’s — located on Christmas Lane, no less — is illuminated with over 100,000 glimmering lights and lined with festive holiday displays every day of the year.
In mid-December, downtown Franklin takes a step back in time as it transforms into a scene straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. The annual Dickens of a Christmas festival brings characters from classics such as A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist to life, against the backdrop of downtown Franklin’s historic Victorian architecture. The luminous Christmas tree in the town’s public square twinkles in the distance as spectators enjoy roaming carolers and sample Victorian-era treats such as sugar plums. There’s even a chance you might encounter iconic literary characters such as Oliver Twist’s Fagin and A Christmas Carol’s Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Tiny Tim Cratchit.
Situated along the banks of Georgia’s Chattahoochee River, the small mountain town of Helen offers an unexpectedly European Christmas experience. The former logging town reinvented itself as a Bavarian-inspired Alpine village in the late 1960s, and now visitors flock to the area for all the winter charm of the Alps — only in the Appalachians. By late November, the town is aglow with lights, wreaths, and artist-decorated Christmas trees for the annual Christkindlmarkt, a European-style market that takes over the town with vendors selling gifts, snacks, and decorations. In December, Santa makes his way to Helen for the annual Christmas parade, riding through town on his big Bavarian sleigh.
The greater Jackson Hole valley is well-known for its winter recreation, but the town of Jackson also happens to be a magical holiday destination. At George Washington Memorial Park, more commonly known as the Jackson "Town Square," breathtaking arches made from elk antlers dot the four corners of the public park. They’re a must-see attraction any time of year (the antler sheds are collected from the nearby National Elk Refuge), but come Christmastime, they’re wrapped in hundreds of shimmering white lights, giving the whole town a festive feel. And for New Year’s Eve, ski instructors from the nearby slopes lead a glowing torch parade down the mountains for all to see.
McAdenville, North Carolina
You don’t get a name like Christmas Town U.S.A. if you don’t go all out for the holidays. In 1956, the McAdenville Men’s Club decided to use red, white, and green lights to decorate the trees all around the McAdenville Community Center, and since then, the town has made it a group effort to bring as much adornment and cheer to the season as possible. The town decorates more than 300 live trees, which range in height from six feet to upwards of 90 feet, and feature as many as 5,000 lights on a single tree. Residents get in on the fun as well, decorating their homes with vibrant displays. As spectators stroll along the town’s lake to take in the lights, they’ll also hear the seasonal sounds of carols from the nearby historic bell tower that sits in the charming town center.
Though its sandy beaches and seaside charm make it a top New England summer destination, Nantucket also shines in wintertime. With the vacation crowds gone and the snow gently falling on the historic downtown buildings, it’s an ideal place to stroll through charming local shops amidst merry decor. Hundreds of seven-foot-tall Christmas trees line the downtown streets, and carolers in costume fill the air with familiar tunes to kick off the season. The town also focuses on local creators during the holiday season — each year, artists in the area contribute to the town’s decor, designing unique Christmas tree displays for the annual Festival of Trees.
Natchitoches is so serious about Christmas that preparations for the annual Christmas festival begin in June. Each year, more than 300,000 lights and 100 individual displays cast the town (and the Cane River running through it) aglow as locals celebrate not only the season, but also their Creole heritage. Over the years, the celebrations have grown to include a parade, fireworks, live music, a “Miss Merry Christmas Queen” pageant, and holiday eats galore. The small Louisiana city of 18,000 people has proudly outfitted its town in twinkling lights since 1927, making it one of the oldest community-based holiday celebrations in the country.
Newport, Rhode Island
Newport’s gorgeous Gilded Age mansions are the perfect backdrop for a storybook Christmas setting. The season comes to life in dazzling opulence through the mansions’ classy decor. Throughout the coastal New England community, homes, businesses, and city properties are lit only in clear, white bulbs. The move was meant to evoke candlelight and recapture the candlelit ambience of holidays past. As a bonus, and in the true giving spirit of the season, Newport raises thousands of dollars for charities every year — all Christmas activities must be free of charge, or they must benefit a charitable organization.
Newport Beach, California
Newport Beach’s coastal waters light up during the annual Christmas Boat Parade and Ring of Lights celebrations. More than 100 boats (including some with V.I.P. guests like Santa and Mrs. Claus) plaster their decks with hundreds of lights as they sail around Newport Harbor and spread colorful Christmas cheer for five consecutive nights. Alongside the boat parade, which includes everything from yachts to canoes, residents of Newport’s Balboa and Harbor Islands decorate their houses to the nines for the Ring of Lights home-decorating competition.
North Pole, Alaska
It’s only fitting that the small Alaskan town that shares the name of Santa Claus’s hometown pulls out all the stops for Christmas. Located 14 miles outside of Fairbanks, this North Pole celebrates Christmas year-round, with parades in July and nostalgic red-and-white candy cane stripes splashed across the city streets. In the town center, you’ll find the Santa Claus House, a one-time post office turned holiday shop. You can visit live reindeer, shop for Christmas gifts, take a photo with the world’s largest Santa statue, and say hello to the man in red himself. Perhaps best and most spirited of all, a resident who is legally named Santa Claus serves on the North Pole city council — long white beard and all.
Red Wing, Minnesota
The town of Red Wing doesn’t just settle for a meager tree-lighting ceremony to kick off the start of the holiday season. Instead, they opt for a jam-packed day of celebrations that the whole town pride itself on. The downtown district comes to life with dozens of twinkling window displays, and live penguins and baby reindeer mingle with the crowds. And with a traditional parade that includes live music, kids activities, and even a popular vintage snowmobile show, Red Wing puts a spin on Christmas that’s all its own — and irresistibly spirited.
Santa Claus, Indiana
A town named after Christmas’ most famous figure would be remiss if it didn’t celebrate the holidays in style, and that’s just what this one does. Santa Claus, Indiana, proclaims itself “America’s Christmas Hometown,” dedicating much of the year to Christmas-themed shops and attractions, and the town works extra hard during the holidays to make sure not only locals, but also kids all over the world, have a joyous season. The post office receives thousands of letters to Santa each year, and since the early 1900s, a group of volunteers has worked to make sure every letter gets a reply from Santa.
The warm climate of California Wine Country doesn’t sound like the most festive place for the holidays, but leave it to Solvang — a traditional Danish community in Santa Barbara County — to create a magical fairytale Christmas village worthy of the season. Solvang’s month-long Julefest celebrations do not disappoint, with much of the town’s authentic Danish architecture draped in lights and festive decor. Activities such as a candlelit walk and a “Nisse Adventure” — a city-wide scavenger hunt for Solvang Nisse, or, Christmas elves — round out the festivities in a town that takes the holidays as seriously as it takes its wine.
St. Augustine, Florida
Christmas in sunny St. Augustine is known for its award-winning Nights of Lights display, a massive undertaking that features millions of tiny white lights creating a warm and festive glow all throughout America’s oldest city. Locals and visitors alike revel in the shimmer of the bayfront installations, while the iconic Plaza de la Constitución Christmas is surrounded by mountains of gifts. Now in its 27th year, Nights of Lights, which runs from mid-November until the end of January, has its origins in the traditional Spanish practice of placing a white candle in a window during the Christmas holidays.
Stockbridge is such an idyllic depiction of a quaint New England town that one could mistake it for a Norman Rockwell painting — and you wouldn’t be too far off. The famous artist’s painting, "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas (Home for Christmas)," is set in the town as it existed in 1967. Each year during the holidays, Stockbridge recreates those simpler times by decorating the buildings with boughs and lights, and lining the Main Street with old-fashioned cars. If that wasn’t reason enough to call Stockbridge a standout Christmas town, you can also tour some of the area’s historic homes and Gilded Age mansions, all decked out in their festive best and making the season all that much more magical.
Williamsburg fancies itself the "Best Christmas Town in America," and with their unique take on the holiday, history buffs would be inclined to agree. Each year, in the historic Colonial Williamsburg district, holiday traditions from the 17th and 18th centuries are celebrated with authentic costumes (worn by local participants) and era-appropriate, hand-crafted decorations. If the other Colonial holiday traditions, such as caroling by candlelight or drum corps marches and gun salutes, are too old-fashioned for your tastes, you can always head to the holiday experience at Busch Gardens amusement park. Its awe-inspiring displays — made up of more than eight million lights — are a local favorite.
Woodstock (not the site of the 1969 music festival, which is in Upstate New York) is picturesque no matter the time of year. Add in a hint of snow, a smattering of classy Christmas decorations, and some plucky small-town cheer, and this small New England town practically transforms into a holiday dreamland. Come December, you’ll hear carolers and sleigh bells in the streets as the season’s festivities begin. Old-fashioned wagon rides take place all through the town, making their way over some of the historical covered bridges in the area. The historic Billings Farm and its authentically decorated farmhouse will take you back to the 19th century as you learn about holidays of years’ past and make your very own classic ornament.