During the Christmas season, towns big and small all over the world celebrate the holidays with festivals that have roots in the Christian faith but appeal to a broader audience with appearances from Santa, festively decorated trees, and twinkling lights. Christmas festivals in small-town America, though, can be terrific fun for families and often feature tree-lighting ceremonies, candlelight processionals, Santa's arrivals, and sometimes even fireworks. If you're looking to escape the big-city crowds for something more intimate this holiday, look no further than these small-town celebrations.
Natchitoches is a small northwestern Louisiana town near Shreveport that was established in 1714 as the first French colony in the state. Each year since 1927, the town celebrates the arrival of the holiday season with the Natchitoches Christmas Festival, making it one of the oldest holiday events in the country.
Although it started as a one-day event, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival has evolved into a six-week-long holiday celebration. During the event, visitors can catch the colorful parade, a festive food market, an arts and craft fair, live entertainment, riverfront fireworks, and more than 300,000 holiday lights. Meanwhile, kids can enjoy children's activities such as cornhusk doll making, Christmas-themed carnival games, live reindeer feeding, performances by local groups, and treats.
The Natchitoches Christmas Festival runs from mid-November through early January. Tickets are required for live music events that take place on Saturdays throughout the festival, but enjoying the lights, sights, and markets are always free.
Woodstock, Vermont, turns into a winter wonderland each year during Christmastime; a blanket of snow drapes over this charming Vermont town in the Green Mountains and locals revel in the holiday cheer, especially during Wassail Weekend. This annual medieval-style event centers around an equestrian parade of more than 50 horses around the village green and includes festivities such as a luminary lighting, a craft fair, and a yule-log fire. However, the best part of the event is that all the historic houses and farms around town are decorated from top to toe with wreaths, garlands, and twinkly lights. Wassail Weekend is usually held over the first or second weekend in December and is entirely free to attend.
On the first Friday and Saturday of December, the city of North Charleston, South Carolina, celebrates the holiday season with a tree lighting ceremony, a festival, and a parade. Other features of the event include kids' games, food vendors, an arts and crafts market, visits from Santa Claus, and live music at an outdoor amphitheater stage. The Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony and activities for the festival take place on the front lawn of the centrally-located Felix C. Davis Community Center on Park Circle, and the parade itself begins at the corner of East Montague and Mixson Avenues.
Located in southwestern Indiana, the small town of Santa Claus lives up to its name each holiday season with festivities happening throughout November and December. The town itself is also a tribute to Saint Nicholas with street names including Christmas Boulevard, Candy Cane Lane, and Mistletoe Drive, and you'll even find more than 20 statues of Santa around the city.
During the month-long Christmas Festival, expect Santa Claus parades, all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts, puppet shows, a festival of lights, gingerbread house decorating, face painting, Christmas woodcarving demonstrations, and the annual Run Run Rudolph 5K Run. Visitors will also want to stop by Santa's Candy Castle, which opened in 1935, to see real chestnuts roasting on an open fire and learn the history of Saint Nicholas and the town of Santa Claus.
Peoria, Arizona, is a small suburb north of Phoenix that celebrates the Christmas season each year in mid-December with the day-long Old Town Holiday Festival. Festivities include live entertainment, a visit from Santa, a snow play area, inflatable bounce houses, cookie decorating, free hot chocolate, a gingerbread house competition, and other kids' activities as well as choral contests and a live nativity scene. The heart of the Old Town Holiday Festival takes place in Osuna Park but extends several blocks through the historic district of Peoria.
Each December, thousands of people make a pilgrimage to the western Connecticut town of Bethlehem to celebrate the holiday season with a traditional Christmas festival.
Known as the Bethlehem Christmas Town Festival, this two-day event takes place over the first Friday and Saturday in December each year. The festival features a candlelight processional and the arrival of Santa Claus to light a 75-foot Christmas tree. There's also free face painting, ticketed rides on the Christmas Town Train, children's crafts, musical performances, hayrides, and food stands as well as a 5K road race, two-mile walk, and fourth-mile Kids Fun Run.
While you're in town, make sure to stop by the Bethlehem Post Office to get your holiday cards postmarked with special rubber stamps known as "cachets," a holiday tradition in Bethlehem since 1938. Offered every day after Thanksgiving through the Christmas holiday, these unique rubber stamps add a bit of flair to your holiday cards.
Taking place over the six weeks following Thanksgiving each year, the Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival is a time-honored tradition at the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. During the event, families can enjoy "Babes in Toyland" and other stage shows, visits with Santa Claus, a parade of lights, thrill rides, and the annual Carol of the Tree, which features thousands of lights and pyrotechnics synchronized with music. Additionally, the Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival also features the park's newest holiday attraction, the Glacier Ridge area, which includes a winter wonderland filled with sparkling displays and a towering 50-foot video motion Christmas tree.