Giddy with the holiday spirit, but weary of rituals that have grown as predictable as the chorus of “Jingle Bells?” Then grab your mittens and scarf, pack a bag, and come along as we discover the joys of season-worthy jaunts, none too far from your Charm City home. We’ll start among the languid southern charms of Charleston, South Carolina, and work our way up the East Coast to the bustling streets of New York City.
Charleston, South Carolina
Ah, sweet Charleston. Magnolia trees gently sway, horse-drawn carriages clip-clop along cobblestone streets, and well-preserved historic homes, gardens, and monuments bring some 300 years of history to life.
I spent a year in the so-called Lowcountry back in the 1990s, and fell in love with this elegant seaport city, a mild-mannered place where even educated folks say “y’all,” and children still address their elders as “ma’am” and “sir.”
Nicknamed the “Holy City” for an early emphasis on religious tolerance (the nation’s first Reform synagogue fills out a skyline thick with church steeples), the city has several distinct personalities which merge seamlessly.
One side honors the city’s rich American history and military lore. For instance, Fort Sumter, located on the Charleston Harbor, was where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861. Today, tourists frequent the waterfront (called the Battery), a stunning row of mansions with Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian architecture.
The city’s deep-rooted African-American culture and heritage is found everywhere, from the numerous antebellum plantations to Cabbage/Catfish Row on Church Street, the inspiration for Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Ornate ironwork and handmade sweet-grass baskets pay tribute to the craftsmanship passed down from enslaved West Africans and free blacks.
Finally, there’s the city’s cosmopolitan face—a chic mix of boutiques, art galleries, antique shops, restaurants, and assorted cultural venues, plus the thriving City Market area, filled with open air vendors, specialty shops, booths, and cafés.
It all adds up to an utterly charming image that’s post-card picturesque year-round. But Charleston (lauded by Travel+Leisure magazine, among others, as a top Christmas destination) really dons her finery during the Yuletide season.
Storefronts and homes sparkle with white lights, garlands, and holly. Hotels and inns are adorned with crimson poinsettia plants, a nod to native Joel Roberts Poinsett, a former ambassador to Mexico who brought the flower to South Carolina in the 1820s.
More than 70 local and regional events mark the holidays, from storytelling and musical entertainment, to Christmas parades and walking tours through the historic district.
The nightly Festival of Lights dazzles with more than a million lights, train rides, and hundreds of displays with traditional Charleston themes throughout the historic districts. The annual event begins in mid-November and runs through the first week of January.
In North Charleston, the Christmas lighting, festival, and parade features nearly 90 trees decorated by local schools, churches, civic groups, and businesses. At at historic Drayton Hall Plantation, African-American spirituals fill the air.
Holidays in this city offer culinary delights from some of the best cooks and food in the South. My favorites include creamy she-crab soup, shrimp ’n grits, and my dear friend Helen’s red rice.
Make sure to pick up regional goodies such as canned boiled peanuts and benne seed wafers, made with sesame seeds originally brought to the region from West Africa. The seeds are thought to bring good luck, and the wafers are sweet—much like Charleston itself.
Alexandria’s slogan—“The Fun Side of the Potomac”—is admittedly catchy (and a wink at sometimes stuffy Washington, D.C.). But what impressed me most about Alexandria is its prominent role in the fabric of American history, one overshadowed by its neighbor.
Founded in 1749, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there is something about this beautiful city that feels genuine and authentic. These are streets that George Washington walked, and where a Masonic National Memorial commemorates him. Where Gadsby’s Tavern still stands, the place where Thomas Jefferson held his inaugural banquet.
And it’s where Abraham Lincoln established the Alexandria National Cemetery in 1862 for Civil War Veterans, including United States Colored Troops. Not welcomed at first, these soldiers eventually petitioned for the right to buried alongside whites.
“There are countless stories that shed light on 18th- and 19th-century life,” says Stevie Glenn Doss, a locally born and raised tour guide who gives historical tours of the town. “They are pretty fascinating.”
Once a mess of empty and dilapidated warehouses, the Old Town District has been revitalized with fashionable boutiques, national retail shops, fine art and antique galleries, and award-winning restaurants.
Old Town’s also where Alexandria kicks off the holiday season in late November with the city’s Christmas Tree Lighting, a festive celebration with music and greetings from the Mayor and Santa Claus in Market Square. For design and architecture buffs, there’s a December 6 tour of historic homes decorated for the season by some of the area’s top interior designers and florists.
Also in early December comes the Campagna Center’s 33rd Annual Scottish Walk weekend, which draws thousands to watch the kilted parade in honor of Alexandria’s Scottish heritage. There are historical re-enactors, Scottish dog groups, antique cars—and the ever-present wail of the bagpipes of hundreds of Scottish clansmen, dressed in colorful tartans and holiday finery.
Other Alexandria festivities include: holiday programs at Gunston Hall, the 18th-century plantation home of George Mason; a Kwanzaa “how to” workshop at the Alexandria Black History Resource Center; and a performance of the holiday classic Handel’s “Messiah” at historic Christ Church, founded in 1767 and attended by both George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
Finally, don’t miss First Night Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, a celebration with music and performing arts along King and Washington streets and throughout Old Town. Leave the bubbly at home; this is a family-oriented evening, though it still ends with a bang from the midnight fireworks show.
Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Besides the Chesapeake Bay and a plethora of natural resources, the hidden beauty of Maryland’s Eastern Shore lies in its preservation of small-town life. So what better place to travel for an old-fashioned Christmas? Many small cities and towns in this region mark the holidays in a simple, less commercial fashion.
And when we say “old-fashioned,” we mean over a century old. In the town of North East on December 6, shopkeepers don Victorian garb, while stores and businesses decorate with 19th-century flavor. Just outside of Ocean City, the town of Berlin becomes festive with
carriage rides, a parade, house tours, concerts, tea parties, and even breakfast with Santa.
Ocean City also does a Victorian Christmas at the Dunes Manor Hotel, hosting daily teas in late November and December, with themed decorations and the backdrop of toy trains. And everyone left in O.C. during the winter turns out to welcome Old Saint Nick with the annual Christmas parade, held under the stars in early December.
But the king of nighttime parades is the Cambridge-Dorchester County Christmas Parade, the largest of its kind in the area. Before the parade, spend the day at the Cambridge Firehouse, which sets up a massive train garden (an elaborate diorama of fantastic landscapes and scenes through which toy trains endlessly loop).
Chesapeake City—at the northern tip of the Bay—has the Christmas Candlelight Tour throughout the winter, with twinkling lights and candles dotting porches and windows throughout the historic canal-side village.
In Chestertown, the Festival of Trees decorates the giant oaks and maples lining downtown’s main streets. They remain on display for weeks, while visitors vote on their favorites. Easton has its own Festival of Trees—more than 60 fill the Tidewater Inn & Conference Center. They also host an Olde Tyme Holiday with a fun run, carriage rides, a parade, and tree lighting.
For a true Bay Christmas, there’s Tilghman Island’s late-November tree lighting, along with live music, and carriage rides for the kids. Tilghman’s boat parade is an awesome sight, as the ships’ lights shimmer off the reflection of the Bay.
It doesn’t get much more small-town charming than in Jackson/Perryville, home of the Holly Tree Lighting Ceremony, which takes place near the local railroad tracks. The holly tree stands 60 feet tall, and is decorated with more than 3,000 lights and just as many enormous Christmas bulbs. The townsfolk say it’s been lighted for years as a way of greeting passing trains.
Last but not least, all of these towns have special church services during the holidays—with various denominations and means of worship so you can count your blessings, even away from home.
Perhaps I am a wee bit biased about Hershey. My parents used to bring me here as a little girl, and I have fond memories of this one-time factory town’s prized theme park, filled with rides, shows, games of skill, and seemingly never-ending chocolate treats.
Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, this city of rolling hills and quiet living has experienced significant growth since my childhood visits in the ’70s. With Hersheypark as an anchor, the area has become one of the nation’s leading family-friendly destinations, complete with hotels, a convention center, golf courses, a theater, museum, and other attractions.
Yet for all the physical changes, one basic premise fuels “The Sweetest Place on Earth”: make people happy.
Street lamps shaped like candy “Kisses” line the city’s Main Street, aptly named Chocolate Avenue. On certain days, the sugary scents wafting from chocolate-making facilities permeate the air.
Hersheypark, once a grassy retreat for the town’s chocolate factory workers, has morphed into a well-executed amusement park, with more than 60 rides (including nine roller coasters), a bandstand, performance pavilion and amphitheater, and adjacent zoo.
Though one young staffer politely nixed my comparisons to Disney World, there certainly are obvious similarities: the cheery, well-trained employees, lively costumed characters, fastidious attention to trash and debris, and gushing (though deserved) reverence to the visionary founders.
Confectioner/entrepreneur Milton S. Hershey was a self-made multimillionaire and philanthropist who adored children. When he and his wife could have none, they founded a boys’ orphanage, which became a boarding school for the under-privileged that still thrives today.
Young people get royal treatment throughout the Hershey compound, so it’s no surprise that Christmas here is an elaborate affair.
This year marks the 20th consecutive year of “Christmas in Hershey,” which starts in mid-November and runs through New Year’s Eve. Hersheypark becomes Christmas Candylane, where rides and quaint village shops are decked out in holiday décor, Santa comes to town, and a 46-foot tall “Kissmas Tree” twinkles.
Sweet Lights is a new holiday drive through the woods, featuring some 600 animated displays, elves, reindeer, and a Victorian ice village.
A “must” is Hershey’s Chocolate World—a bonanza of candy, baked goods, ice cream, toys, clothing and holiday and other trinkets, plus the wonderful, animated Really Big 3-D Show.
For visitors who wish to stay overnight, the family-oriented Hershey Lodge hosts Christmas in Chocolate Town, a dinner musical.
Nearby, at the posh Hotel Hershey, the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens will perform the classic A Christmas Carol. There’s also a holiday brunch, a feast complete with ice and chocolate sculptures that gets raves from local residents.
Last but not least, the four-star hotel continues its signature chocolate treatments (the whipped cocoa bath, for example) inside the Spa at Hotel Hershey, a 17,000-square-foot monument to pampered pleasure.
My massage with yummy-smelling oils soothed me, but boy did it make me hungry. Soon after, my fingers were sticky with the glorious remnants of a chocolate bar—Hershey’s, of course.
New York City
Everyone knows about the Big Apple during the holidays—most of the big events are televised worldwide—but there’s no substitute for actually heading to Gotham to see and feel some of the legendary city’s lasting traditions.
Put simply, television can’t capture the energy of New York City, the thousands of overheard conversations, the honking taxis that careen down the street, even the earthy aroma of roasted chestnuts.
The city gets its holiday season up to full speed in November with the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s a kaleidoscopic profusion of decorated floats, marching bands, and giant balloons tended to by diligent handlers. The parade is best seen live, with tens of thousands of other teeth-chattering folks. Dress warmly: The parade goes on unless the weather becomes physically dangerous, and you’re going to be standing for the hours and hours it takes for the show to wind through the city.
Two other stalwarts are the annual majestic performance of The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center, and gathering to watch the legendary Rockettes literally kick off the holidays during the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.
If there’s one thing every romantic American should do at some point in life, it’s ice skate at Rockefeller Center, in the shadow of the towering Christmas tree and the great golden statue of Prometheus. There are some great lesser-known stops to make as well: the world’s largest Hanukkah Menorah (at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue), and St. Patrick’s Cathedral (51st Street and Madison Avenue), the largest gothic cathedral in the United States.
Kids will love the Holiday Festival at the Bronx Zoo, featuring more than 100 illuminated animal sculptures and real live reindeer. If you’re looking for a Christmas dinner like Mama’s (well, my mom, anyway), take the A train up to Harlem for Sylvia’s famous soul food.
Speaking of dinner, by the time December 31 rolls around, you’ll probably be tired of huge meals. Athletic types can work them off during Central Park’s New Year’s Eve Midnight Run, complete with fireworks and champagne rest stops.
If you (and your sweetheart) don’t mind spending New Year’s Eve in a sea of people, head to the famous festivities in Times Square.
And if you wave hard enough, maybe Dick Clark will wave back at you.
Contributing writer Donna M. Owens is an award-winning journalist based in Baltimore. Her articles on The Choir Boyz and Heritage Theater appeared in the Fall Arts Preview issue.