The holiday baking, shopping and wrapping can wait. The best way take stress out of the season is to grab those you love most -- or at least those you like -- and head to a holiday festival. Many are free. Most everyone will be in high spirits. And the best part: they’re held all over the country.
Make it a tradition to head to one of these fun festivals. Some last just a weekend, others the entire holiday season.
Here are 10 great places to get that holiday groove on from coast-to-coast:
1. Let's hear it for the World Champions - Go Cubs!
Chicagoans just received a major gift that was 108 years in coming which means the Windy City will be celebrating big-time at its famous Chrstkindlmarket that opens Nov. 18. Modeled after Nuremburg’s Chrtkindlesmarkt, this outdoor bazaar in the Chicago Loop draws both locals and visitors for German holiday food, entertainment and crafts.
Chicagoans also flock to the free Lincoln Park Zoo for Zoo Lights complete with ice carvers, crafts and musical light shows. At the Museum of Science and Industry, the Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light event featuresover 50 trees displaying cultures and traditions from around the world and decorated by 3,500 volunteers. And Navy Pier, Chicago’s favorite lake-front playground, is transformed for the entire month of December by Winter WonderFest into an indoor holiday destination with a skating rink, giant slides and carnival rides all decked out for the holidays.
2. Grapevine, Texas
Grapevine, Texas lives up to its moniker as The Christmas Capitol of Texas with 1,400 events in 40-plus days, and millions of lights decorating the town that is between Dallas and Fort Worth. Take a ride on the Christmas Train or fly down the ice slides at the Gaylord Resort.
3. Celebrate Smoky Mountain Style
Celebrate Smoky Mountain Style at the nearly four-month-long Winterfest in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., a popular gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and home of Dolly Parton's Dollywood theme park. Winterfest lasts until Feb. 28 with free trolley tours through the light displays, mountain music, hot cider, parades and special shows. Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas draws families back year after year for the Timber Canyon Festival of Lights synchronized to holiday music as well as new attractions including the Parade of Many Colors.
4. Get on top of a mountain
In Keystone Colo., the world’s largest snow fort complete with icy mazes and slides debuts Dec. 10 at Keystone Kidtopia, a festival designed for kids who ski free here all season. Kidtopia features live music, tubing, skating and the chance for a photo with a skiing Santa. The fort will stand guard all snow season. Virtually every ski town has some holiday festival to kick off the season -- like the popular Race of the Santas in Breckenridge on Dec. 3 with the “Anyone-Dressed-As-Santa” race down Main Street attracting hundreds. In Squaw Valley, Calif. enter the Grinch lookalike contest that’s part of the Merry Days and Holly Nights festival starting Dec.17.
5. Time travel back to a Revolutionary holiday era
Time travel back to revolutionary holidays with a visit to Virginia’s historic triangle and Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown Settlement, as well as Busch Gardens famous for its Christmas Town with eight million lights-- the largest holiday display in North America. For the first time, two of the theme park’s famous coasters will be open during the event that lasts through Jan. 2. Celebrate A Colonial Christmas the entire month of December at Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown with a glimpse into 17th and 18th Century holiday traditions. Colonial Williamsburg ushers in the season the first weekend in December with its famous Grand Illuminations, with the firing of guns, fireworks, music and holiday dishes.
6. Explore a fantasy in lights
Explore a Fantasy in Lights at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga. celebrating its 25th holiday festival and considered the South’s most spectacular light display and festival. Callaway Gardens has minimal light pollution from other sources, so the Christmas lights seem to shine even brighter in the woodland displays. A guide narrates the story of the displays on “The Jolly Trolley.” Afterwards, visit the Christmas Village to shop, meet Santa or let the kids make a tree ornament.
7. Raise a glass to Ben Franklin
Raise a glass to Ben Franklin at the Historic Philadelphia Franklin Square Holiday Festival that runs Nov. 17-Dec. 29 with the free Electrical Spectacle Holiday Lights show featuring 50,000 lights illuminate the square to a soundtrack of holiday classics. Take a selfie with Ben Franklin. Take a Thursday night Colonial pub crawl and party like it's 1777. Ride the carousel playing holiday music or board the special holiday train. New this year? Outdoor fire pits at the Winter Beer Garden.
8. A bit of English literary history right in the US
Visit Dickens' London without leaving the country at San Francisco’s historic Cow Palace is transformed into the GREAT DICKENS CHRISTMAS FAIR with three acres of exhibit space filled with Dickens’-era characters, carolers, street vendors and more, from Nov. 12 -Dec. 18. In New York’s Finger Lakes region, Dickens Christmas takes over the village of Skaneateles from Thanksgiving weekend through Dec.18 with Charles Dickens and his cast of more than 50 characters interacting with residents and locals in the ultimate holiday street theater.
9. Celebrate in New England
Celebrate New England-style in communities like Kennebunk, Maine where the Christmas Prelude from Dec. 1-11 includes an annual parade of holiday hats, bonfires, ice bars sculptures and live music and a Pooch Parade with all of the dogs dressed in holiday attire.
10. Follow the flickering luminaria
Follow the flickering luminarias, the simple brown paper bags that are filled with sand and a votive candle in New Mexico. Elephant Butte, New Mexico kicks off the celebration with a Holiday Luminaria Beachwalk Dec. 10. There is an annual Old Town Luminaria walk in Albuquerque, another on Santa Fe’s famous Canyon Road Dec. 24. Or snowshoe a loop under brightly lit luminarias on Christmas Day at the Enchanted Cross Country Ski Area, finishing with green chile stew and desserts.
Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.