Welcome to the country’s most unique holiday celebrations.
Houses decorated with holiday lights seem so last year when you consider how certain towns around the U.S. kick off the busy holiday season in November and December. Every town has its signature take on Christmas and Hanukkah, of course, but some are so darn special you might want to book a flight and hotel room pronto. From Boston to Phoenix, and Park City to Cocoa Beach, here’s where to go for some of the most memorable holiday experiences in the country.
“Les Noches de Luminarias” at Phoenix Botanical Garden
WHERE: Phoenix, Arizona
Live up North? Consider this festive tradition a reason to flee to a warmer environment to celebrate. Luminarias—sometimes called faralitos—are small paper lanterns filled with candles and set outside after dusk. You’ll find this tradition throughout New Mexico and Arizona. All throughout December, for the annual Les Noches de Luminarias festival at the Phoenix Botanical Garden, paper bags are weighed down with sand and a lit candle. Arranged along the gardens’ walkways, they cast a soft glow on the flora and fauna, paired with live mariachi music and twinkling lights.
WHERE: Cocoa Beach, Florida
Santa is often associated with elves, reindeer and a sleigh that zips between houses. But what about when he’s delivering presents in communities along the coast? Shouldn’t he get to hop on a board, too? Each Christmas Eve morning, Surfing Santas—when hundreds of surfers dressed in red Santa outfits—take to the waves for one last thrill before deliveries begin. It’s free to participate—as long as you have a Santa suit.
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Crystal Coast Christmas Flotilla
WHERE: Beaufort, South Carolina
You’ve likely seen plenty of holiday lights strung on the windows and rooflines of houses but what about in a fleet of watercraft? The annual Crystal Coast Christmas Flotilla, held on December 1 this year, is for anything that floats, which might include kayaks, canoes, and yachts. Locals really get into this as prizes are given out for the most well-designed floats. Even if you are traveling, but can easily get your hands on a kayak or canoe, consider entering. It’s the best way to meet locals.
WHERE: Park City, Utah
The downtown of this posh ski-resort literally gets lit in this annual Electric Parade on the last Saturday of November. And it’s not just cars. Bicycles and trolley cars are strung with lights, too, as they cruise slowly down historic Main Street. Paired with strolling carolers and Santa sightings, plus a lighting of the street’s Christmas Tree and lights, it’s a festive kick-off to the holiday season. Cash prizes are awarded from a panel of judges for the best entries in the parade.
“Christmas at the Newport Mansions" Tour
WHERE: Newport, Rhode Island
Want to see how the other half lives? Newport’s opulent and lavish mansions—some belonging to heirs of the country’s richest families, like the Vanderbilts and the Astors—are a draw any time of year. But from mid-November through January 1, their decorations take it to the next level during Christmas at the Newport Mansions, a tour of three mansions (Marble House, The Breakers, and The Elms). You might walk out with place-setting ideas for your own holiday parties.
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World’s Largest Menorah
WHERE: Manhattan, New York
Hosted in Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan—across the street from the posh Plaza Hotel—the Jewish Festival of Lights is a must if you’re in the area between December 2-10 this year. And where else can you spot the world’s largest menorah? For the record, it’s 32 feet high and weighs 4,000 pounds. A nearly identical menorah is at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, in Prospect Park. Potato pancakes and a concert kick it off on December 2. Lighting for both menorahs is at 5:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 3:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday
“Christmas in Ice” at Santa Claus House
WHERE: North Pole, Alaska
Seriously, is there anything cooler than saying you went to the North Pole to celebrate the Christmas holiday? This is a town that actually exists, 14 miles southeast of Fairbanks. Be sure to mail some letters from here, too, to the kids in your life who are trying to be naughty, not nice. From December 1 through January 8, the park next to Santa Claus’ house hosts Christmas in Ice, featuring ice carvings, ice slides and an igloo.
House on the Rock
WHERE: Spring Green, Wisconsin
Undoubtedly one of the most wonderfully weird attractions in the Midwest, House on the Rock, an hour west of Madison, was built—you guessed it!—on top of a rock in 1945. From mid-November through January 1, about 6,000 collectible Santas and other weird wonders join the self-guided house tour. If you’re looking for stellar views of the Driftless Region, they don’t get any better from the house’s cantilevered glass-walled hallway.
Ugly Sweater Run
WHERE: 10 U.S. cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Atlanta and Chicago
You’ve already worn that ugly Christmas sweater to a party or maybe to a bar. But have you worn it during a 5K road race? Whip out your cameras and phone if you’re taking this all in from the sidelines because the photos of all those ugly sweaters en masse are spectacular.
WHERE: Mobile, Alabama
On the first Friday in December, a bunch of people in Mobile cram into one room to beat a Guinness Book of World Records. For what, you ask? The most dressed Santa’s elves in one room. The event takes place at the Mobile Convention Center, so start planning your elf outfit now.
Santa Ski & Pub Crawl
WHERE: Crested Butte, Colorado
A charming Colorado ski town is the perfect spot to stroll between pubs or cruise the slopes—especially if you’re in a Santa suit. The Santa Ski & Pub Crawl event, on a set date in early December (stay tuned for announcements), requires entrants in the group ski and apres-ski pub crawl to don a bright-red Santa suit—which earns you a wristband and ticket—and customized versions of the traditional outfit are absolutely welcome. And, like the elves in Alabama, this is all in quest of earning a Guinness Book of World Records for the most number of skiers in Santa suits.