If eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon had come to Lancaster County, PA, during the holidays, she may never have written to the New York Sun in 1897, and editor Francis P. Church wouldn't have penned his famous reply: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
That's because Santa is seemingly everywhere in this town, which is steeped in holiday spirit. Just ask Jim Morrison, the white-bearded founder of the National Christmas Center in Paradise, PA, just outside Lancaster. Morrison, who's collected Christmas memorabilia since he was seven, noticed early on that many of his holiday antiques came from the Lancaster region. "That's when I realized how important Lancaster was to the American Christmas," he says.
Lancaster is laced with the culture of the Pennsylvania Germans, commonly called the Pennsylvania Dutch, and the Germans brought the Christmas tree to America, he notes. The fur-clad Belsnickel is a Pennsylvania Dutch figure who gives coal to naughty children. His legend became part of Santa Claus lore. Frank Woolworth made a mint selling tree ornaments at his Lancaster store, which he opened in 1879, Morrison adds.
Lancaster County is a place that still takes the holidays seriously, with light shows, pageantry, caroling, musicals, and celebrations evoking its rich history. You can have a country Christmas in the rural areas and a Dickensian-like holiday in the quaint downtown, which has undergone a revitalization that makes it more happening than many big cities.
The family-friendly area is an easy daytrip from Baltimore, but, as we discovered on a holiday visit, there's so much to do that you may want to spend a weekend. Here's a suggested itinerary that you can mix or match to suit your interests and schedule.
Arrive just after lunch and get a holiday primer at the National Christmas Center, which attracts about 50,000 visitors a year. As holiday music plays overhead, visitors stroll through a seemingly endless maze of holiday cheer.
The tour starts with a "Yes, Virginia" exhibit, depicting a figure of Virginia standing in a period-decorated room with a blow-up of her letter. "We think it's the only replica on display," says Morrison, who often sits near the tableau, greeting children who inevitably think he's Santa.
Santas, however, are in the next room. Images and life-sized figures, some of which Morrison made, depict Santa throughout the ages.
Also on display is a cotton-wrapped tree, a Lancaster tradition that started as early as 1850 when celebrants wanted to replicate the look of snow on bare branches. A gallery outfitted like a 1950s-era Woolworth's is packed with vintage Christmas toys and merchandise, including a Red Ryder BB gun, Yakity Yak chattering windup teeth, tin soldiers, and five-cent phonograph records. Depending on your age, you can't escape a twinge of nostalgia. "This place touches people, I tell you," Morrison agrees.
The center also devotes a room to Nativities. National Christmas Center, 717-442-7950, nationalchristmascenter.com.
For a live version of the Christmas story, visit the Sight & Sound Theatre, which each year presents the Miracle of Christmas. The musical starts with Mary and Joseph's betrothal and moves forward to Bethlehem. Live animals are part of the appeal—in part, because you're never sure just what they'll do onstage. There are typically three shows a day on Fridays and Saturdays, but they sell out quickly. Sight & Sound Theatre, 800-377-1277, sight-sound.com.
After the show—or before it, if you've booked an evening performance—head to Miller's Smorgasbord for dinner. The dining room received a recent overhaul, and the new décor takes diners back to 1929, when Anna Miller prepared chicken and waffles for truckers, while Enos Miller repaired their vehicles. The front of a 1927 Huckster now serves as a hostess stand.
Although Miller's recently began offering à la carte items, the smorgasbord in all its overflowing bounty is the star attraction. I sank my teeth into some of the best fried chicken I've ever tasted here. There are eight made-from-scratch soups, including chicken-corn, a Pennsylvania Dutch favorite. You'll find turkey salad with almonds, pasta salad, broccoli salad, and seafood salad. There are Swedish meatballs and steamed shrimp. Carving stations include ham with a sweet cider sauce. The baked cabbage, which looks like scalloped potatoes, is delicious.
At the adjoining bakery, you can buy iced raisin bread, fruit pies, and shoofly pie. Miller's Smorgasbord, 717-687-6621, millerssmorgasbord.com.
Grab breakfast at your hotel or save your appetite for a trip to Central Market in downtown Lancaster. Launched in 1730, it's the oldest continually operating famers' market in the country. The 120-year-old red-brick building gets crowded early. On my way to the Lancaster Farm Fresh stand, I bounced off another shopper. When I begged her pardon, she shrugged and said, "That's market day!"
On my visit, one stand held festive poinsettias while another was stocked with fragrant breads. Sweet potatoes—the real kind with pale yellow skin—tumbled from a wicker basket beside mini pumpkins and purple potatoes. During the season, you'll find wreaths, cookies, and Christmas candy, as well as holiday-themed entertainment. Lancaster Central Market, 717-735-6890, centralmarketlancaster.com.
Located in a revitalized arts district, the market is surrounded by galleries and boutiques, as well as the Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum and the Heritage Center Museum, which showcases the area's decorative arts. (There are gift shops at each site.) Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum, 717-397-2970, quiltandtextilemuseum.com; Heritage Center Museum, 717-299-6440, heritagecentermuseum.com.
Downtown also offers seasonal entertainment and Santa visits beginning on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and continuing into Christmas. Mayor's Office of Special Events, 717-291-4758, lancastercityevents.com.
Continue to Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse (a popular tourist spot because of its sexually suggestive name in such a wholesome area!) for shopping and seasonal activities. Make the Jam & Relish Kitchen your first stop. This is where the story began in 1954, when Pat and Bob Burnley started canning in their two-car garage with a range, three kettles, six recipes, and Amish friends, who helped out. Bob got the idea to build a working kitchen so people could view the canning process.
Today, the family's old home is the Kling House Restaurant, and their former farmyard is home to more than 40 shops, including the Jam & Relish Kitchen, where visitors can watch more than 80 varieties of jams, jellies, barbecue sauces, pickles, salsas, and relishes being made.
Do more than feast your eyes. Tasting stations are scattered throughout the shop. I zigged to the salsa and zagged to the apple butter, indulging my whim at points in between. As for baked goods, treat yourself to a whoopie pie, its sweet icing traditionally sandwiched between two chocolate-cake "cookies."
Saturdays are dubbed "Holly Days." At fire pits throughout the village, you can toast marshmallows for s'mores and taste hot apple cider spiked with the village's own apple-cinnamon jelly. Entertainers include brass bands and chamber singers. Along with homespun items, you'll find Pandora bracelets, Brighton handbags, and UGG footwear. Kitchen Kettle Village, 800-732-3538, kitchenkettle.com.
Before leaving, consider a buggy ride with AAA Buggy Rides, located on the property. AAA Buggy Rides, 717-989-2829, aaa-buggyrides.com.
Have lunch at the Kling House Restaurant, where the fare is familiar. Think paninis, crab cakes, fish and chips, and salads. Side dishes, however, highlight Kitchen Kettle products, such as chow-chow, pickled beets, and pepper cabbage. Kling House Restaurant, 800-732-3538, kitchenkettle.com.
Or, travel farther up Route 340 to Plain & Fancy Farm, Miller's sister restaurant. (Drive carefully. Buggy sightings are common along the highway, and you may pass flocks of Amish children walking along side roads.)
Instead of a smorgasbord, Plain & Fancy features optional family-style dining, which places strangers elbow-to-elbow at a long table. A 16-item traditional feast includes the Pennsylvania Dutch chicken pot pie. Instead of the usual pastry cap, the savory dish is topped with square noodles. An à la carte menu is also available. Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant, 800-669-3568, plainandfancyfarm.com.
The restaurant is next to the Amish Country Homestead, a home outfitted to reflect Amish customs; the Amish Experience Theater, which shows a short film about the Amish; a two-hour Amish tour excursion company; and another buggy ride company. The Amish Experience, 717-768-3600, amishexperience.com.
Bundle up for a visit to Dutch Wonderland, which becomes Dutch Winter Wonderland on Saturdays, Sundays, and select weekdays during the holiday season. Families pack the amusement park, created in 1963 by Earl Clark, a potato farmer-turned-innkeeper. Clark and friends built the castle that serves as the park's icon. If, like me, you came here as a child, expect flashbacks. Three of the original four rides, including the Wonderland Express Train, are still operating. And there's a display of retired rides.
Generations of fans line up for the 15 rides that safely operate in cold weather, such as the train and the carousel. They can view live reindeer, and visit with signature characters, including Princess Brooke and Duke the Dragon. But the highlight is the light display, thousands of blue, green, red, and white LED lights that twine around trees, shrubbery, and structures. The Royal Light Show, timed to music, runs about every 15 minutes, and it's different each year. Dutch Wonderland, 1-866-FUNatDW, dutchwonderland.com.
There are several on-site restaurants for a family-friendly bite. If you want something more contemporary, try Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in Lancaster, part of a small Delaware-based chain that appeals to both children and adults. The beer, brewed on site, has won national awards. Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, 717-291-9800, ironhillbrewery.com.
Those staying at the Best Western Premier Eden Resort & Suites should take advantage of the renowned Sunday brunch, served in the courtyard near a stone fountain. It's worth the trip if you're not staying at the resort.
If your visit falls on Dec. 3-4 or Dec. 10-11, stop at Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster for another dose of the Pennsylvania Dutch. On those dates, the museum holds its Country Christmas Village event. A living-history village, the more than 100-acre site preserves the history and material culture of the Pennsylvania German rural community from 1740 to 1940.
During the holidays, the museum "focuses on the traditions of the Pennsylvania Germans, in terms of decorating, food, and carols," says Michael Emery, museum educator and volunteer coordinator.
The tavern, which serves hot chocolate and cookies, is festooned with a tree, hung upside down and decorated with pretzels, nuts, and cookies. It's part of a Christmas tree evolution displayed on the property. There are also feather trees and cotton-wrapped trees. Visitors will also see a "putz," a small village traditionally placed under the tree or on a table.
Children, however, will be more interested in "der Belsnickel," who comes carrying a switch and a bag of peanuts. Dressed in furs, he doles out the appropriate goods based on whether the children were naughty or nice.
I didn't see Belsnickel in person (check the museum's website for times), but I did see small versions in the impressive gift shop. Even in miniature, he's wonderfully ominous. Landis Valley Museum, 717-569-0401, landisvalleymuseum.org.
At 3 p.m., before you head home, catch a performance of the annual Christmas Show at the American Music Theatre, a singing-dancing extravaganza. (There are other performances during the week.) American Music Theatre, 717-397-7700, amtshows.com.
Another option is Santa's Paradise Express on the Strasburg Rail Road. Santa rides with the kids to Paradise and back. Not only do the children get a gift, but they are also treated to holiday tales after the ride. If you have time before chugging back home, peek in the nearby Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the National Toy Train Museum. Strasburg Rail Road, 717-687-7522, strasburgrailroad.com; Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, 717-687-8628, rrmuseumpa.org; National Toy Train Museum, 717-687-8976, nttmuseum.org.