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Santa Claus, Ind.: Celebrate in Santa's Hometown
It's always Christmas in this small town in southwestern Indiana, but over the next month the festivities shift into even higher gear.
In addition to elves answering letters to Santa (last year the town responded to 22,000 of them), the community welcomes visitors to an array of holiday-themed attractions.
Small children will love Santa's Candy Castle, where they can talk to elves via a computer and get confirmation they've been good boys and girls (they'll even receive a laminated certificate to prove it).
Next, visitors can browse the tens of thousands of items at the Santa Claus Christmas Store, which stocks nearly 5,000 ornaments, and then tour the Santa Claus Museum & Village. The site has historical buildings dating back to 1856 and a 22-foot Santa Statue from 1935.
From Nov. 24 through New Year's Eve, the Santa Claus Land of Lights tells the 'Shining Story of Rudolph.” The 1.2-mile display is one of the largest holiday light shows in the U.S. And Saturday, the hourlong Santa Claus Christmas Parade winds through the downtown.
Visitors also will enjoy the Santa Claus Arts & Crafts Sale, held at three locations in town.
Holidazzle in Minneapolis: Urban Holiday Fun
Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis hosts this free celebration that runs Thursdays through Sundays from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23. Highlights include an outdoor skating rink (you can borrow a pair of skates if you don't have your own), musical performances by bands and choirs, food and beverages, movie nights of holiday classics, trinkets and crafts for sale, visits from Santa Claus, and a Christmas market similar to those held in many European cities.
You can get a respite from the chilly weather by sipping a warm beverage in Holidazzle's heated tents, then head back outside to enjoy more of the fun. On five evenings during the festival, a fireworks show starts at 6:30 p.m.
'Vikings, moose, and abominable snow men are all welcome,” say festival organizers.
Galena, Ill.: Picture-Perfect Christmas
Galena is at its most beautiful during the holiday season, especially if you're lucky enough to visit when a sprinkle of snow covers its charming, nineteenth-century buildings.
On Saturdays in December, carolers stroll the downtown streets and Santa welcomes visitors to the Old Market House. The town's major celebration takes place on December 10. The festivities begin with a live wedding in a storefront window (couples from around the country compete to be chosen for the free ceremony and the celebration that follows). Later in the evening, other stores have 'living windows” with volunteers posed in Christmas scenes. And in the evening, more than 5,000 candlelit luminaria flicker along the streets and steps of town.
On Dec. 10 and 17, the innkeepers of Galena open their doors so that visitors can tour their Christmas-bedecked houses. www.visitgalena.org
Eagle, Wis.: An Old World Christmas
West of Milwaukee, the historic village of Old World Wisconsin celebrates the holiday in cozy, 1880s fashion. Today and Dec. 10-11, the festival known as Old World Christmas invites visitors to step back into a simpler time in the 480-acre site owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Homemade decorations adorn the more than 60 historic buildings here, and wood fires and bonfires take the chill out of the air.
During the festival, a 19th-century Father Christmas greets children. Each day also features storytelling, live performances by holiday characters from the state's immigrant past, and free horse-drawn bobsled slides (if the snow doesn't cooperate, wagon rides are offered). Caroling and hymn singing remind visitors of the reason for the season, and holiday treats made from vintage recipes keep them well fed.
In the evenings, guests with reservations can attend an Old World Foundation's Polish Holiday Dinner. Held in the historic Clausing Barn loft, this multi-night fundraiser includes traditional Polish food, beverages, decorations, and entertainment.
Branson, Mo.: Ozark Mountain Christmas
This entertainment capital blends glitz with down-home mountain traditions during the holidays. Lit by 5 million lights, Silver Dollar City, the theme park located near Branson, is Christmas headquarters. Visitors can enjoy two live Christmas shows, 1,000 decorated Christmas trees, the Holly Jolly Christmas Light Parade, and a five-story tree with special effects.
Young visitors will love the Branson Scenic Railway's Polar Express Train Ride, while the entire family can marvel at the two-and-a-half mile Trail of Lights held at the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead.
Many of the entertainers in Branson offer holiday-themed shows during December, from a 'Hot Rods & High Heels 1950s Christmas” to a musical production of 'It's a Wonderful Life.” The Adoration Celebration, now in its 66th year, celebrates the Biblical story of Christmas.
Holland, Mich.: A Dutch Christmas
Founded in 1847 by immigrants from Holland, ethnic traditions remain strong in this town on the shore of Lake Michigan. Lack of snow is rarely a problem, making this a popular destination for those who want to ensure they have a white Christmas.
Through Dec. 10, Kerstmarkts are held at Holland's Ninth Street Market Place. Modeled after European Christmas markets, they feature artisan gifts and holiday treats.
On the evening of Nov. 29, Santa arrived with great fanfare, accompanied by bands, floats, and trucks. His Parade of Lights includes more than 70 entries that wind slowly through the downtown.
On the first Friday in December, Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa, makes his appearance in Holland. Arriving on a white horse, he's accompanied by his mischievous Zwarte Piet helpers. His procession begins at the Kerstmarkt and proceeds to Centennial Park, where visitors can enjoy a tree lighting ceremony and refreshments at the Holland Museum.
On Dec. 10-11 and 17-18, the historic Cappon House invites visitors to join in carol singing, storytelling, ornament making, and Victorian-era games and traditions.