By Katie Riley
**Originally appeared in Chesapeake Family Life’s 2019 issue. Some towns have scaled back a bit for 2020, so check events closely before you book your daytrip!**
During the holiday season, most towns will light a Christmas tree, hang a few wreaths, and pass out candy canes to mark the occasion. For a few small towns, a bit of tinsel here and there just won’t suffice.
These five towns go Christmas crazy starting at Thanksgiving, decking the halls with lights, Santas, and anything red or green. Streets are transformed into a Christmas wonderland, and everything from parades to trolley tours focus on all things Christmas. Read on to discover five Mid-Atlantic towns that take Christmas so seriously, even the worst Grinch may be filled with the holiday spirit.
No town puts on a classic Christmas quite like Williamsburg. Celebrate in Colonial Williamsburg with caroling, fifes and drums music, or go skating at the Liberty Ice Pavilion. The Grand Illumination kicks off the season with a bang with the firing of guns, a spectacular fireworks display and musical performances. Visit the Jamestown and Yorktown settlements to observe colonial holiday traditions, or watch the lighted boat parade in Yorktown from the Riverwalk Landing. To experience an indoor winter wonderland complete with snow, visit the Yankee Candle Village, a 45,000 square-foot shopping and interactive entertainment venue with train displays, Santa, and countless activities for kids. A must-do during the holidays is Christmas Town at Busch Gardens, featuring more than 8 million Christmas lights—the largest lights display in North America. Take a ride on the Christmas Town Express, watch holiday performances, visit Traditions Tree Maze, or experience thrills on Busch Garden’s many attractions, including the recently opened Finnegan’s Flyer. (photo courtesy Visit Williamsburg)
Cape May, N.J.
If a Victorian-era Christmas has always been on your wish list, head to Cape May, N.J., where the entire town is transformed into a Dickens’ village. Grand hotels like Congress Hall and the Southern Mansion are draped in their best finery, with candles, greenery and fairy lights decorating the property, while multiple Christmas trees adorn each lobby. On weekends in December, take a candlelight house tour of homes or take a Ghosts of Christmas Past trolley tour. Christmas tours abound as the many historic B&Bs of Cape May open their doors during weekday afternoons for tours. The popular Lamplighter Christmas tour visits four private homes and inns and includes the exhibit “An Old Fashioned Christmas” on display at the historic Emlen Physick Estate. Arts and culture aficionados can take in two different Christmas shows offered at the two theaters in town, The East Lynne Theater Company and the Cape May Stage.
Named ‘Christmas City USA,’ Bethlehem lives up to its moniker. Downtown Bethlehem kicks off the celebration before Thanksgiving with more than 800 lighted Christmas trees, greenery, lights, and a candle in every window—a tradition that is carried throughout the town. Take a Christmas City Stroll with a costumed guide and learn about the history of Bethlehem’s Victorian and colonial architecture, hear the tale of a ‘candle in every window,’ and learn about the Bethlehem star, set high atop South Mountain. A horse-drawn carriage tour will highlight the landmarks of the town or visitors can take an evening bus tour to see the lights, hear about the town’s traditions and visit the Bethlehem star by night. Bethlehem is also home to the nation’s only live Advent calendar, where each day visitors can gather at the historic Goundie House to hear a special guest address a different Christmas topic. A destination in itself, the town’s Christkindlmarkt is a German Christmas market with over 150 vendors, and an outdoor village with fire pits and igloos.
Pennsylvania Dutch country knows how to do Christmas right, with dozens of events held during the season in Lancaster. At the end of November, the mayor lights the town tree with live music from Tuba Christmas. Santa arrives on a fire truck, and evening hours begin at the Lancaster Central Market. Take a carriage ride through downtown Lancaster or watch the “Miracle of Christmas” show at the Sight and Sounds Theatres. Tour the area’s authentic B&Bs on the ‘Find Your Belsnickle Tour,’ which visits 15 inns decked in their holiday finest. A must-do for families is the historic Strasburg Railroad, which runs special holiday themed train rides throughout the season, such as The Night Before Christmas Train and the Christmas Feast Train. Just a short drive away from is Koziar’s Christmas Village, an outdoor lights show voted ‘Best Outdoor Lights Display in the World.’ Barns and buildings such as Santa’s Workshop and Santa’s Post Office twinkle with more than 500,000 lights.
St. Michaels, Md.
Known for it’s nautical appeal, St. Michaels is a charming town any time of year, but it really lights up at Christmastime when the streets and shops are bedecked in greenery and twinkling white lights. For 33 years, ‘Christmas is St. Michaels’ has been an annual event that includes a gingerbread house competition, visits with Santa, a tour of homes and holiday music. Enjoy a classic Christmas parade on Talbot Street with a marching band, fire trucks, antique cars and boats, llamas and a horse-drawn carriage. Families can also don a Santa hat and participate in the Santa Dash, a one-mile run that kicks off the parade. A visit to the Sweet Shoppe and marketplace will yield some delectable holiday gifts or visit one of the many antique shops that line Talbot Street. Parents can continue the celebration with an evening Yuletide Party held at the Inn at Perry Cabin.