Ethel M's Holiday Lights (Courtesy Ethel M Chocolates)
The holiday season would not be as magical without beautiful light displays. Most towns have at least one house that neighbors look forward to seeing lit. Others have entire neighborhoods, or maybe a park or two, that really light it up for the holidays. These towns have displays that have become attractions in their own right, drawing people from miles around to revel in their festive glow.
McAdenville, North Carolina
What sets McAdenville apart from the rest is that it is not a display, but a real town in which all of the residents decorate their homes for Christmas. Nicknamed Christmas Town USA, the town's residents put up more than 400 Christmas trees and every house dons its holiday best.
Drive through town or park and walk around. Christmas music from a bell tower provides a soundtrack. But go early. Though the lights come on at 5:30 pm, it gets congested quickly as there's only one way in and one way out of town.
There are no vendors and no admission fee. Guests are free to walk around town enjoying the lights with no pressure to spend a dime. The town created an ordinance eliminating vendors within the town limits, although the Baptist church does give away free hot chocolate.
“Nobody here gets anything out of it but joy, especially seeing the kids come through,” said Christmas Town USA board member Steve Rankin. “It’s better to give than receive. That’s what McAdenville does.”
The cottages make Downtown Ogden a must-see every season. In Christmas Village, more than 60 cottages modeled after Santa’s village are decorated inside and out. There’s Santa’s Ornament Factory, a Snowflake House and Frosty’s Firehouse, to name a few. Throughout the village, lights bedazzle trees and holiday displays.
Children can visit Santa’s Castle and share their Christmas wishes with the jolly old elf, or take a train ride through a tunnel decorated with glow-in-the-dark paint. Parents can also shop for gifts in the Christmas Village.
The village opens the Saturday after Thanksgiving with an Electric Light Parade and a fireworks show.
In 1948, William Koziar began decorating his Pennsylvania farm for Christmas, mostly to bring joy to his family. He added a little more every year, recalled his daughter, Beverly Levine. Eventually people began lining the road to wait for the lights to be turned on at dark.
"They would be backed up for 15-20 miles," said Levine. "Then my father decided to let people in a little bit."
The tradition has continued and expanded until the farm became Koziar's Christmas Village, spanning acres of farmland every year. Visitors walk along paved pathways through the lighted displays. Buildings contain more Christmas displays—some are available to enter and others are for peering into the windows. The reflection of lights in the lake make the display even more spectacular. A covered bridge, decorated with lights and dubbed "The Kissing Bridge," has been the site of many marriage proposals and at least one wedding, Levine said. Kids can visit Santa, and animal-costumed actors walk around and greet the children.
"It's just a very family kind of thing," said Levine.
This Alpine village in Washington's Cascade Mountains is an attraction no matter the season, but at Christmastime it comes alive with more than a half million holiday lights. A Christmas Lighting Festival is held each weekend through December with an array of Bavarian and American Christmas events to keep even the busiest little elf entertained. St. Nicholas arrives each Friday at 4:30 pm to tell his story. On Saturday and Sunday, Santa arrives at noon. Throughout the weekend, there is Christmas music, carolers, roasted chestnuts, costumed Christmas characters, sledding and Bavarian treats. The festival culminates each Saturday and Sunday with the lighting ceremony, emblazoning the town with colorful displays.
If you've never seen a cactus decked out for the holidays, check out Ethel M's Cactus Garden Holiday Lights display. The Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Botanical Cactus Garden, about 10 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, is a destination in itself. Any time of year visitors can take self-guided tours of the factory and watch gourmet chocolates being made. Outside, the three-acre cactus garden is one of the largest collections of cacti and succulents in the world. But from mid-November through the first of January, the cacti are spectacularly ablaze in colorful holiday lights.
Ethel M spokesman Stu Haack said many people have told him it just isn't the holidays until Ethel M turns on the holiday lights.
"It's just a really, really unique experience," said Haack. "Instead of lights on a pine tree, it's on a cactus. It's a very interesting juxtaposition."
To add to the holiday air, sip some of the chocolate factory's hot chocolate while strolling through the display.
The Denver Botanic Gardens offer holiday light displays at both of its garden locations. The 24-acre York Street location features a diverse collection of gardens that bloom brightly during its annual Blossoms of Light display. Visitors can walk through an illuminated perennial walk and Romantic Gardens, or peek at the lights through special HoloSpex glasses. New sound-reactive LED lights let visitors interact with the displays. At Chatham Farms, a 700-acre plant refuge and working farm in nearby Littleton, guests can meander through a Magical Enchanted Forest along the Trail of Lights. Displays include animal light sculptures at the barn, insect light sculptures in the lavender garden and illuminated antique tractors.
Stone Mountain, Georgia
From mid-November until early January, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson look down from their rocky perch on the north side of Stone Mountain over a brightly lit holiday display. More than 2 million lights glow along the village down below while Christmas music plays and holiday characters amble about. Other holiday events include live performances of Christmas classics, a sing-along train ride, visits with Santa and a Christmas parade followed by a magical Snow Angel Snowfall finale.
Wisconsin's largest drive-through Christmas light display is Country Christmas at Country Springs Hotel. The experience doesn't end after a slow cruise through the mile-long trail lit by animal figures and holiday scenes. Park the car and stroll through the Streets of Bethlehem. Life-sized Fontanini characters portray scenes from the life of Christ. Sip an eggnog or a hot chocolate while watching six model trains run through a grand display in Christmas Village, also at the end of the trail.
Houston is home to the Magical Winter Lights Lantern Festival and Holiday Celebration. Walk through a magical wonderland of more than 100 scenes, including world landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal and the Beijing Temple of Heaven. Shop for gifts at the Holiday Market Square or watch the Chinese acrobats. Explore Dinosaur Land's life-sized dinosaurs and interactive fun zone, in addition to an exhibit featuring the mysteries of the East.
Santa Claus, Indiana
Santa Claus always comes last, except in this Midwest town that bears his name. With street names like Kringle Place and Rudolph Boulevard, Christmas it's always Christmas in Santa Claus. But the first three weekends in December are especially festive, as the town holds activities like toy testing at Santa's Toys, chestnuts roasting on an open fire at Santa's Candy Castle, Christmas Dinner with Santa and Scrooge's Christmas. Of course, what would a town named after St. Nick be without a Festival of Lights? Visitors can also chat with an elf on the North Pole Network, visit with Santa or write a letter to him and mail it from the Santa Claus Post Office. Packages and letters mailed here will bear the official Santa Claus postmark.