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.
Other possibilities: you can see holiday boat parades on December 10 in Key Colony Beach and Marathon, and on December 16 on Key Largo and Key West. Key West also hosts Holiday House Tours on December 29 and 30, with five decorated historic homes and gardens open to the public for viewing. Tavernier, just south of Key Largo, hosts a Historic Holiday Candlewalk on December 10; all are invited to join carolers on a candlelit stroll through the downtown area.
For more information on these and other holiday events, visit the Florida Keys & Key West Monroe County Tourist Development Council website.
White Mountains, New Hampshire and Maine
New Hampshire and Maine’s White Mountains are a region-wide destination for those seeking beautiful decorations, wintry weather, and relaxation before the holidays. On December 9 and 10, the Country Inns in the White Mountains will celebrate with the 10th annual Inn to Inn Cookie Tour. Guests can tour the 17 participating inns at their own pace over the two-day event, and will be welcomed at each property with home-baked cookies and candy.
“The idea was to show off the inns and all the Christmas decorations,” explains Charlie Mallar, owner of the 1785 Inn in North Conway, New Hampshire. “We try to add a little twist each year … this year we’re having gingerbread displays. Each inn will have two cookies or candies. Drinks will depend on the property—they range from country inns like ours, with a full restaurant, to small B&Bs.”
A portion of the proceeds from this year’s tour will benefit local charities. Tickets cost $25 per person for the two-day event, or you can also book a lodging package that includes tickets. Each inn is within driving distance of others participating on the tour; no drive between properties should take more than 15 minutes. Guests also receive a keepsake ornament and recipes of the cookies available on the tour.
If you want to sit back and enjoy the winter mountain scenery, consider taking a ride on the Santa Train, based in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Available on select dates in December, the Santa Train takes passengers along the Pemigewassett River to Woodstock, just over an hour’s ride. Santa visits children on the train and distributes a small gift to each; hot chocolate and sweet treats are also available for purchase. Tickets are $12 per person; no reservations are required.
For more holiday options throughout the area, check the listings on VisitWhiteMountains.com.
The North Pole and Fairbanks, Alaska
What better place to celebrate Christmas than the North Pole itself? Alaska’s North Pole, 15 miles outside Fairbanks, is home to the Santa Claus House and other holiday-themed attractions. The town gets decked out for the season with candy cane streetlights, tree lightings, caroling, and more. Visitors can tour Santa Claus, Snowman, or Holiday lanes, as well as Santa Claus Drive.
Fairbanks also has plenty of options to put you in a holiday mood. The Northern Lights (occurrence permitting) put artificial lights to shame. The town also sponsors an annual Winter Solstice Festival, honoring the shortest day of the year with a treasure hunt, carols, and a tree lighting, scheduled this year for December 16, as well as a “music and fireworks” evening on December 21.
Other possibilities include holiday performances such as Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus at the Riverfront Theater, a sing-along Messiah with the Fairbanks Choral Society, and A Fireside Christmas at the Fairbanks Light Opera Theater.
For more possibilities, visit ExploreFairbanks.com.