From being with family to getting some time off work, it’s clear that the holidays provide some of the year’s best moments. But many people have exhausted the events in their local areas or want something new to experience.
We’re in luck, though. The Southeast has plenty of opportunities to celebrate. Whether you want to stay local or go on a road trip, here are a few of the best places to celebrate four seasonal holidays – Christmas, Hanukkah, Noche Buena, and Kwanzaa.
Due to social distancing and pandemic health requirements, we recommend that you keep an eye on event schedules this year; like 2020, some of these events may be held virtually or need to make other changes.
One of the most beloved holidays of the year for many, Christmas decorations and events are everywhere, even before December. But in the heart of the month, here are two places to get your fill of Christmas spirit.
Christmas Town, USA – McAdenville, North Carolina
Most Christmas events last for a day or two – maybe even a week if you’re lucky. But Christmas Town USA in McAdenville, North Carolina, lasts for nearly the entire month of December.
From Dec. 1 to Dec. 26, the entire town lights itself up in red, green, and white. Every homeowner decks their property out in Christmas decorations, and the public buildings are just as festive. You won’t see a single tree that isn’t covered in lights – and the best part is that everything is free to view.
It’s been a town tradition since 1956, and the spectacle draws in hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. In 2020, the town was even ranked the country’s 4th best public holiday lights display by a USA Today survey.
The lights aren’t the only thing the town offers, though. The Tree Lighting Ceremony kicks off the month-long event at DuPont Plaza, where a child from McAdenville Elementary turns all the lights on with an enormous wooden switch. Another event the town offers is the Yule Log Parade, which started six years before the lighting tradition. Town residents and visitors follow a yule log that a group of children pulls on a sled to Legacy Park. Once it’s ignited in an open fireplace, the Christmas Town Festival begins, full of music, food, and other entertainment.
Christmas at Gaylord Palms – Kissimmee, FloridaGaylord Palms Resort in Kissimmee, Florida, is a regular hotel and convention center for most of the year. At the end of the year, though, it becomes a certified winter wonderland.
From Nov. 19 to Jan. 2, the center hosts a flurry of events called Christmas at Gaylord Palms. Its most popular spectacle is ICE!, a walk-through display of Christmas-themed ice sculptures kept at a frigid 9 degrees. After bundling up in provided coats, visitors can see two million pounds of ice carved into reindeer, frost-tipped trees, a whole nativity scene, and more at their leisure. It even includes two four-story tall ice slides.
Ice isn’t the only thing to see, though. The entire center decks itself in acres and acres of more than 2 million Christmas lights tucked into every nook and cranny. A 60-foot tree inside the hotel lights up every night in the #LIT Light Show, where the lights pulse and dance along with Christmas music.
Gaylord Palms puts on several other shows besides #LIT, too. You can see Cirque Dreams Unwrapped, a circus show performed in colorful holiday costumes, or The Greatest Story, a musical about the birth of Jesus. Some events are even for children, like Elf Training Academy or the Gingerbread Decorating Corner.
Christmas isn’t the only cause for celebration near the end of the year. Millions of people also observe Hanukkah (or Chanukah), the Jewish Festival of Lights. Here are some of the best places to see those lights that bring the holiday to life in the Southeast.
Chanukah Festival – Hallandale Beach, Florida
Hallandale Beach is known as a great place to vacation for its Florida charm of crystal-clear water, restaurants, and – of course – beaches. At first glance, you may never guess that it’s also the home of North America’s largest Hanukkah festival.
For more than 40 years, Hallandale Beach has celebrated the Chanukah Festival, a night of music, lights, and fun. The event now brings out more than 10,000 people per year. Organized by Chabad of South Broward, the festival is marked by lighting Florida’s largest menorah, eighteen feet tall and made of steel. It’s streamed worldwide on Chabad.org to warm the hearts of people outside the United States, too.
Chanukah in the Square – Charleston, South CarolinaIf you want a more small-town Hanukkah experience, Charleston, South Carolina, has you covered.
For more than a decade, nearly every local Jewish organization has collaborated to host Chanukah in the Square. It’s a free holiday celebration in Marion Square that over 1,500 people attend yearly. Visitors can munch on latkes, donuts, pretzels, and more while enjoying live music. Booths with games, crafts, drinks abound. Children can have fun in a bounce house and decorate a dreidel. Local Holocaust survivors even light an enormous menorah during the event.
Chanukah in the Square is estimated to be the largest Jewish event in South Carolina, which has a rich Jewish history. Charleston is home to the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, built in 1749 and one of the country’s oldest synagogues still in use. It’s also the birthplace of American Reform Judaism.
For some, there’s a day just as important as Christmas – Noche Buena! On this “good night” of family, friends, and food, people of many Latin American cultures gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus and each other among presents and poinsettias. But if you want to venture outside the house this year, here are a few Noche Buena events you can swing by.
Noche Buena – Key West, FloridaIn Key West, you can get your fill of holiday spirit, delicious food, and history all at once.
Every Christmas Eve, a Noche Buena feast is hosted at the oldest building in Key West – aptly named the Oldest House & Gardens Key West, built in 1829. Guests eat roast pig, traditional Cuban side dishes, and sangria in a spacious garden decorated with poinsettias and hanging string lights. El Mocho Restaurant, a local staple of authentic Cuban food, caters the meal.
Noche Buena Party — Port St. Lucie, FloridaMusic lovers rejoice because Port St. Lucie is putting together a Noche Buena Party chock full of Salsa, Bachata, Merengue, and more!
Hosted at the beautiful Port St. Lucie Botanical Gardens, this year’s event features four-time Grammy Award-winning musician Tomasito Cruz. From 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on December 18, visitors are free to dance, sing, and eat delicious Hispanic food. The event won’t break your bank, either – tickets are only $5 in advance and $10 at the door. It’s a great way to get out and socialize while still being able to celebrate at home with your family on Christmas Eve.
Created in 1966, Kwanzaa celebrates African culture, history, and families from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. It’s derived from the Swahili word “first” and modeled after harvest celebrations in Africa. Even though Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, there is no shortage of places to celebrate in the Southeast.
Annual Cary Kwanzaa Celebration – Cary, North CarolinaDuring the holidays, towns may throw a few events for Christmas or Hanukkah and leave Kwanzaa out. But that’s not the case in Cary, North Carolina.
In what might be the longest-running official observance of Kwanzaa in the Southeast, Cary has been hosting the Annual Kwanzaa Celebration with the Umojah Group since 1994. Visitors experience dance and music performances from groups like The Magic of African Rhythm and buy locally produced goods from a vendor’s market at the Cary Art Center. Kids can also have fun at the children’s village, an area with arts and crafts, storytellers, and other activities.
[Kid-specific] Celebrate Kwanzaa – Atlanta, GeorgiaThroughout December, the Children’s Museum of Atlanta will explore several holidays as part of their Celebrations in Light experience. The museum is tailored to kids ages 0-8 and will explore several December holidays through science, art, design, and stage programming.
As part of Celebrate Kwanzaa, the museum is partnering with Mama Koku’s Storytellin’: featuring Master Storyteller, children’s writer, and children’s educator, Mama Koku. The presentation will teach children about the Kwanzaa holiday and why it’s celebrated and introduce them to Kwanzaa’s seven pillars. Best of all, Mama Koku will tell a story that demonstrates the principles of Kwanzaa!
If you’re planning a visit to the museum for Celebrate Kwanzaa, make sure your kids also bring their favorite fuzzy socks to go ‘skating’ in the museum’s Sockefeller Plaza!