Heading to a big city for the holidays can be exciting—there's shopping, Christmas shows, and festive greens all around. Smaller destinations can be just as enjoyable at Christmastime, though. Small towns offer charming festivals, mom-and-pop stores with one-of-a-kind gifts, and cozy inns decked out for the season. These destinations provide the kind of personal, homey touches you can't find in a city. So for this year's festivities, consider foregoing New York for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, or San Francisco for Santa Barbara. You can even find something to do at the North Pole (Alaska's North Pole, that is).
Here are five small-town destinations that are big on holiday spirit.
Bethlehem brings Old World Christmas traditions to revelers who want a simpler holiday celebration. "We don't have the traditional Christmas elements such as Santas and reindeer," says Loretta Hein, tour guide for Historic Bethlehem. "It's a more subdued focus on the true meaning of Christmas."
The town, founded by settlers from Moravia and Bohemia, was originally a mission center and closed religious community, Hein explains. Today, while less strict, that heritage is still important. Rather than crowded malls, colored lights, and parades, Bethlehem focuses on its authentic Moravian traditions dating back to the 1700s. The site of the first Christmas tree in America, Bethlehem decorates with single candles in windows throughout the downtown buildings, multi-pointed Moravian stars, and the famous putz. "We always recommend the putz," says Hein. "What it refers to is a miniature nativity scene, [with] hand-carved figures and natural materials [such as] moss, grass, and twigs. You make a large display, add light, music, and narration, and tell the Christmas story that way." Hein notes three Moravian churches in town have a putz each year; all are free and open to the public.
Bethlehem is just over an hour's drive from both Philadelphia and New York City. Holiday events for this year include historic walking and bus tours that showcase traditional decorations, farmhouse Christmas festivities at Burnside Plantation, and horse-and-carriage rides throughout downtown Bethlehem.
The town also celebrates with music. Performances scheduled this year include seasonal concerts at the Central Moravian Church, a Celtic Christmas concert, and holiday performances by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.
Other can't-miss options: Shopping for unique gifts at the Christkindlmarkt, modeled after traditional German open-air Christmas markets, open on December 3, 7 through 10, and 14 through 17; and the live Christmas pageant, an annual tradition since 1978, to be held this year on December 9 and 10. "Live actors and animals act out the nativity, many come just for that," says Hein.
Santa Barbara, on California's Central Coast, celebrates the holidays with everything from parades to chorale concerts and live Nativity scenes to the Nutcracker.
Through December 8, visitors can take a holiday-themed tour of the historic Casa del Herrero (House of the Blacksmith). Throughout the month, there's also a 90-minute Christmas tour on the 7th Annual Trolley of Lights, showcasing the town's historic sites done up for the season.
Music and theater lovers may be interested in the Santa Barbara High School Madrigals and A Capella choirs Christmas Concerts, held December 8 through 10; or the State Street Ballet's production of the Nutcracker at the Lobero Theatre, December 16 and 17.
For a more contemplative event, consider viewing the Winter Solstice on the evening of December 21 at the Dunes Center in Guadalupe. The center provides telescopes and night-vision glasses for star-gazing and nature viewing, as well as music, hot chocolate, and storytelling.
For a full listing of holiday happenings in and around Santa Barbara, visit the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau website.
The Florida Keys
Despite the distinct lack of snow, the Florida Keys put on a host of events for the holiday season. Carole Stevens, executive director of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce, recommends Winterfest 2006, to be held December 10 on Big Pine Key. "It's a great arts and crafts fair to buy your Christmas gifts," she says. "We will have live music all day by local artists, a children's corner, ornament making, Christmas card making, things for all different ages. Parking and admission are free." The fair only sells hand-crafted art; there will also be raffle giveaways every half-hour.