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Outdoor holiday celebrations around the United States

By Kaeli Conforti and Lola Méndez
updated September 29, 2021
Shutterstock Rf 524126509
©T.Slack/Shutterstock
Get into the holiday spirit outdoors and admire holiday decorations and lights from a socially distanced walking path.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, though things may not feel as festive this year thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. The CDC recently released special guidelines for holiday travel and gatherings and officially recommends staying at home, celebrating with the people you live with and holding virtual get togethers.

That said, there are still a few places around the U.S. where you can get into the holiday spirit outdoors and admire holiday decorations and lights from a socially distanced walking path. Here’s where to celebrate the holidays safely this year—just remember to book your tickets online ahead of time, wear a mask and stay at least six feet away from anyone outside your group while you’re there.


Northeast

New York City

 While getting a glimpse of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a little more complicated this year, it’s not impossible. First, you’ll need to scan a QR code with your smartphone when you arrive in Rockefeller Center. Then, as part of a new “virtual queuing” process, a text message will let you know what time to come back to one of the viewing entrances, where you’ll wait your turn on one of the social distancing markers. Be aware that groups are limited to four people at a time and once you reach the main viewing area, you’ll only have five minutes to take photos and have a look. Visit daily for free through early 2021.

 

New Hampshire

The 2.5-mile drive-through light show at the New Hampshire Speedway in Loudon features 400 different lighting displays with snow-covered mountains in the background.

 

 Woodstock, Vermont

Celebrate the holidays Victorian style at Billings Farm & Museum, where you can try your hand at candle dipping, watch traditional holiday cooking demonstrations, create your own gingerbread ornaments—or just head straight to the onsite Dairy Bar for cider donuts—from December 19-24 and December 26 to January 3.


Mid-Atlantic 

Maryland

 At Ocean City, Maryland's Winterfest of Lights guests must stay two meters apart while exploring zillions of sparkling holiday lights, animated light displays, and a 50-foot holiday tree on display along a paved path in Northside Park. The Annmarie Sculpture Garden is transformed into an outdoor wonderland until January 1st with many light sculptures of wild animals, winter wonderlands, musical holiday scenes, and magical beings.

 

Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia

 The White House isn’t the only place in the nation's capital that’s getting in on the holiday spirit. Civilians can enjoy the undeniable festive energy in the District through New Year’s Day by visiting the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The National Menorah will be lit throughout Hanukkah. 

 Mask-wearing is mandatory at the Downtown Holiday Market on F Street NW between 7th and 9th Streets. Shop from more than 70 Black-owned and local businesses Tuesday through Saturday through December 23. About 25 minutes away in Vienna, Virginia, celebrate the season at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens’ Winter Walk of Lights. Stroll the one-way half-mile path full of holiday lights and festive decorations, admire the Fountains of Lights and watch as the “sing to me” tree’s lights dance along with all your favorite holiday tunes. Timed tickets must be purchased online ahead of time and are available on a limited basis, while the event takes place nightly through January 3.

 

Roanoke, Virginia

 Treat yourselves to a lovely half-mile walk through the woods, toast marshmallows around the fire, shop for presents at the Artisan Christmas Market, donate canned goods to help others, meet Santa and his elves—he’ll be attending virtually December 21 and 22—and feast your eyes on more than 500,000 lights during the Illuminights Winter Walk of Lights at Explore Park. Purchase timed tickets online or by phone to access this event, which runs through December 23 and from December 26 to January 3.

 

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Head to Virginia Beach for a unique beach-themed holiday lights display. At the Holiday Lights at the Beach, you’ll drive on the Atlantic Ocean boardwalk that has been transformed into a nautical lights display, including a surfing Santa, until January 3. 


Southeast

 
Aiken, South Carolina

 Enjoy more than two miles of beautifully lit paths with over 100,000 lights and holiday decorations at Christmas in Hopelands Gardens. This year, the colorful displays will be lit up all December long to help keep spirits bright. Admission is free so pay it forward and bring along some canned goods for those in need. Visit through December 23 and December 26-27 but dress warm, as shuttle service isn’t offered this year to allow for social distancing—you’ll need to park nearby at the Green Boundary Club and enter on foot.

 

South Walton, Florida

 If you’re in the Florida panhandle, don’t miss 12 Nights of Lights at The Village of Baytowne Wharf, located about halfway between Pensacola and Panama City Beach in South Walton. Three free light shows happen every hour on the hour starting at 6 p.m. each Wednesday, Friday and Saturday through Christmas and you can catch a complimentary concert Wednesday nights between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.

 

Houston, Texas

 Now through December 23 and from December 26-31, the Space Center in Houston is hosting Galaxy Lights, a technological holiday celebration featuring kinetic light shows, choreographed light and music sequences, an interactive light pad, a large light tunnel and the chance to see a film about astronauts celebrating the holidays in space, among other themed attractions. Galaxy Lights requires its own tickets, which can be purchased online, and takes about 90 minutes to fully enjoy.

 

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Dolly Parton’s Dollywood features an award-winning spectacle, set in the backdrop of the Smoky Mountains. The festival features over 5 million lights, and even include fireworks this year. 


Midwest

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

 Visit the Tree of Light, a 55-foot silver maple tree decked out in 30,000 lights near the River Walk in Wisconsin Dells, now through mid-January. It’s the perfect time and place for a wintertime stroll, with special performances by the Wisconsin Dells High School Choir and Band or visits from Santa happening most evenings through December 26.

 

Indiana

 It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the jolly ole fella’s namesake town—Santa Claus, Indiana! Get in on the holiday joy by driving through The Santa Claus Land of Lights show that depicts the story of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer at the largest campground light show in North America. For more themed light displays cruise through The Christmas Lake Village Festival Lights on December 12th and 19th covering nine miles of residential light displays with houses decked out with baubles inspired by everything from The Grinch to polar bears.

 

 

Cheyenne, Wyoming

Celebrate the holiday season Western-style this year in Cheyenne, where you can get your letter to Santa stamped by an Elf and see the mail get picked up by a Pony Express rider, visit holiday horses at Santa’s Saloon and Stables, hear Cowboy Carolers sing and meet Mr. Claus by the fire at Kringle Ranch, part of an event by the Little America Hotel & Resort. Check the calendar for more Old West holiday festivities happening through December 31.


West

 Sonoma County, California

 Cue that legendary piano music and celebrate trees of all shapes and sizes all December long at Windsor’s annual Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Grove. This year, more than 200 trees were decorated by neighborhood families, classes, small businesses and community groups for you to enjoy on a socially distanced stroll through Windsor Town Green.

 

San Luis Obispo, California

 Don’t miss San Luis Obispo’s annual Light Up Downtown event, featuring outdoor photos with Santa, a socially distanced scavenger hunt, a holiday window contest among local businesses and an assortment of lit up Christmas trees and holiday scenes on display in Mission Plaza.

 

Nevada

 The Polar Express in Carson City, Nevada drive-through lights experience is operating until Christmas Eve. The brilliant light show will feature Santa, Mrs. Claus, and dozens of elves busy at work as they prepare for Christmas. Guests are encouraged to wear their favorite holiday pajamas and bring hot chocolate as they travel through the North Pole experience.

  

Hawai’i

Get into the Mele Kalikimaka spirit at the 24th anniversary of Kauai’s Festival of Lights. The displays use recycled and reclaimed materials at the Historic County Building park and can be enjoyed until New Year’s Day. Millions of colorful lights illuminate the park’s looming coconut palm trees wrapped in colorful lights as well as upcycled decorations including aluminum can flowers and water bottle butterflies.

 

Arizona

 Make the best of the holidays at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. The gardens offer a dash of holiday magic with 8,000 hand-lit luminaria bags and thousands of white twinkle lights. Las Noches de las Luminarias includes pre-recorded carols to enjoy during the experience. Guests can capture memories with a touchless, complimentary virtual photo booth experience with options of photos, GIFs, or Boomerangs. In Lake Havasu City experience London Bridge Resort's Festival of Lights—the Bridgewater Channel is lit up with over 500,000 lights that set the water aglow and spark the holiday spirit.

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Inspiration

Cruise Along These Holiday Lights Drive-Throughs Across The U.S.

As the current pandemic is changing how we celebrate the 2020 holiday season, the tradition of seeing public holiday lights displays at night can now be done from the safety of your car. From readapted walking tours to first-time happenings or continuing events, here are holiday lights drive-throughs around the U.S. to take a ride-along. Check their websites for tickets and health and safety protocols before attending. New England Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay has reimagined its annual Gardens Aglow as a drive-through event happening now through Jan. 2. The gardens will still dazzle with over 650,000 environmentally-friendly LED lights depicting trees, animals, flowers, and other delights. Plus, they’ve all been designed by the gardens’ staff. Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I. is hosting its first Drive-Through Holiday Lights Spectacular now through Jan. 10. The inaugural spectacular features festive larger-than-life luminous displays and over 1.5 million illuminated lights. Now through Jan. 2, the Magic of Lights at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Conn. is presenting the latest LED technology and digital animations in this holiday experience. Now through Jan. 3, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Concord is holding the “Gift of Lights,” a 2.5-milelong drive-through show with 3.5 million lights, a new 150-foot RGB Tunnel of Lights, and characters from popular children’s books. There are also fan-favorite displays, including the 12 Days of Christmas scene. Hershey Sweet Lights, presented by T-Mobile. Mid-Atlantic “Wegmans Lights on the Lake” at Onondaga Lake Park in Liverpool, N.Y. is happening now through Jan. 10, and is a two-mile route featuring towering holiday displays, a larger-than-life land of Oz, twinkling fantasy forest, Victorian villages and a variety of animated scenes. Located down the road from Pennsylvania’s Hersheypark Christmas Candylane, ”Hershey Sweet Lights presented by T-Mobile” is happening now through Jan. 3 and consists of two miles of fields and wooded trails decorated with nearly 600 illuminated, animated displays created from about two million LED lights. Through Jan. 3, “Bayport Credit Union Holiday Lights at the Beach” is Virginia Beach Boardwalk’s festive nautical holiday lights display featuring festive fish, musical crabs, and elves join a surfing Santa and a new 40-foot dancing Christmas tree. Southeast At Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., “Speedway Christmas” is happening now through Jan. 17 and has more than four million LED lights in displays along a 3.75-mile stretch. This event also has holiday movies shown on a large HDTV screen Thursdays through Sundays. For an additional fee, attendees can skate on a 5,400-square-foot ice rink; mask-wearing is required. In Columbia, S.C., the South Carolina State Fair is putting on “Carolina Lights” at Lexington Medical Center Fair Park at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds now through Dec. 27. More than 100 individual LED light displays along a mile-plus stretch including a nativity scene and a 25-foot-tall Frosty the Snowman. In Savannah, the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens’ “December Nights & Holiday Lights” has been turned into a drive-through event, on now through Christmas Eve. Now through Jan. 2, “Jax Illuminations” will feature two mega trees, a 300-foot tunnel of lights and custom Christmas scenes at the Morocco Shrine Center in Jacksonville, Fla. Through Jan. 2, the Pinnacle Speedway in Lights at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee spread across a four-mile route illuminated by more than 2 million lights among 250 displays. In Nashville, at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, the Jingle Beat is designed by the same artists and local creatives that behind some of the music industries biggest tours. This light show is helping to support the local music industry that has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Southern Lights Holiday Festival at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington is a three-mile driving tour full of a lot of twinkling lights, happening now through New Year’s Eve. “Santa Claus Land of Lights” at the Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort. Photo by Eric Scire. Mid-West Billed as Central Ohio’s largest drive-through Christmas light show, Wonderlight's Christmas at the National Trail Raceway in Hebron is now through Jan. 3. It has over one million LED lights synchronized to traditional and contemporary Christmas music played through your own car stereo. “Santa Claus Land of Lights” at the Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort in the (fittingly called) Santa Claus, Ind. happens now through Dec. 27. The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is depicted through lighted displays and storyboards. Now through Jan. 3, “Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum” in Lisle, Ill. has guests remaining in their cars and tuning to a synced musical soundtrack while driving nearly two miles among the Arboretum’s trees. The Wisconsin Christmas of Carnival Lights in Caledonia, 20 minutes south of Milwaukee at Jellystone Park™ Camp-Resort, features over two million twinkling lights on an over 1.6-mile path. Now through New Year’s Eve, the show allows attendees to experience lights on all sides, with displays ranging from forest friends and reindeer to Santa and his elves. South-West “Lights of Joy” in Branson, Mo. is located off of the Shepherd of the Hills Expressway and contains more than 300 displays with over one million twinkling LED lights throughout this 1.2-mile drive. The Automobile Alley Art Light Display in Oklahoma City has colorful LED lights covering buildings on eight blocks of North Broadway and district side streets. Various shops and restaurants will also feature window displays. The event is part of Downtown in December and runs now through Jan. 31. “Gift of Lights” at Fort Worth’s Texas Motor Speedway now through Jan. 3 is made up of over one million twinkling lights that people can see from their own cars. Lights at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Photo by Gabe Ginsberg West “Christmas in Color” at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo. is having drivers cruising along more than 1.5 million lights perfectly synchronized to holiday music heard through your car radio. Drive by giant candy canes, snowmen and more now through January 3. The Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s “Glittering Lights” features more than five million LED lights intertwining throughout a 2.5-mile course through the speedway, through Jan. 10. The Phoenix Zoo’s Cruise ZooLights can be seen from your car now through Jan. 31, with millions of twinkling lights and dazzling animal sculptures from the comfort of your vehicle. Now through Jan. 2, “Holidays in Your Car” is taking place both at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego and Ventura County Fairgrounds, with more than 1 million LED lights and some fixtures standing at 40 feet tall.

Inspiration

Spend the night at FAO Schwarz via Airbnb

Airbnb is coming to the rescue for one very lucky New York City-based family to create a magical holiday season for their little ones during this strange time. For just $25 (plus taxes and fees) you can create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for your children by sleeping over at the most iconic toy store on Earth, FAO Schwarz in Manhattan. The winners will have private access to the gigantic store’s many entertaining vignettes as well as endless toys and games to play with during the overnight stay on Monday, December 21st thanks to Airbnb. New York City residents can request to book a holiday sleepover at FAO Schwarz starting on December 15th at noon EST for the chance to make your kiddos’ holiday wishes come true. Be sure to pack your most comfortable footie pajamas as you're bound to spend hours exploring the mega toy store’s many attractions during the unforgettable evening. A real-life FAO Schwarz’s toy soldier will guide you through one of the world’s oldest toy stores. There will be a larger-than-life music lesson on the store’s iconic Giant Dance On Piano, a Build-A-Bear workshop session to create a new plush holiday friend, an opportunity to build your own remote-controlled car that you can race to your heart's desire down the halls of FAO Schwarz, and a breathtaking science experiment guided by FAO Schwarz’s Professor Atlas. Of course, no trip to FAO Schwarz is complete without a shopping spree at the two-story, 20,000-square-foot toy wonderland. There are countless toys and games in every corner of the shop making it easy for Santa to pick out perfect gifts for your kids from plush teddy bears to race cars thanks to a complimentary store credit included in the package. Have fun as you shop by using your imagination to play in the store’s rocket ship and other memorable play areas. Your family will be treated to a fantastic holiday feast joined by a troupe of teddy bears, extra-large candy canes, a toy train, and a sweet winter wonderland themed table setting. Unwind in the family room and snuggle by the electric fireplace with plush toys and admire the 75-foot holiday tree glowing outside your window in Rockefeller Plaza. Parents will tuck in for the night to sleep in a sleigh bed. Kiddos will love the bunk beds complete with a slide. A gigantic red teddy bear will be there to provide comfort to your little ones, but you're all sure to dream sweetly while surrounded by so much magic. The entire evening, including the guided tour, will adhere to social distancing regulations of remaining six feet apart and everyone will wear masks in order to keep your family and staff safe. Prior to your visit, the store will be cleaned in accordance with the CDC guidelines. Should it become necessary to cancel the stay, Airbnb will offer the winner a $1,000 USD Airbnb coupon and FAO Schwarz store credit. In the holiday spirit of giving back, Airbnb will make a one-time donation to the FAO Schwarz nonprofit partner St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The National Cancer Institute is the only designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the country devoted solely to children battling cancer. Non-NYC residents can still partake in the holiday cheer through Airbnb’s Online Experiences with FAO Schwarz including a magic lesson hosted by FAO Schwarz’s Professor Abracadabra where hopeful mystical practitioners can learn new illusion tricks. FAO Schwarz’s Professor Atlas will host a crash-course in chemistry, teaching guests how to make glow-in-in-the-dark slime at home. There will also be a holiday story read by an FAO Schwarz toy soldier. These family-friendly Airbnb Online Experiences can be booked through airbnb.com/happyholidays and enjoyed throughout the holiday season.

Inspiration

Look up tonight! Northern Lights expected in Northern USA

The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has put out a geomagnetic storm watch for December 9-11, 2020. The storm should make the Northern Lights viewable across a large swath of the Northern United States. The forecast is the largest Coronary Mass Ejection (CME) of 2020. States that will likely be able to see the Northern Lights are Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. For the best viewing, find a dark, clear night and turn off all lights. According to the SWPC: "Geomagnetic Storm Watches are in effect from December 9th - 11th, 2020 due to anticipated CME effects. The CME occurred on December 7th, and was associated with a C7 flare from Region 2790. Analysis suggests CME arrival possible late on 9 December, initially resulting in G1 (Minor) storm levels. As CME effects continue, activity is likely to increase, especially if the magnetic field carried with the CME connects well with Earth's magnetosphere. Therefore, the potential for strong storm levels exists and a G3 (Strong) Watch is in effect for December 10th. CME-related disturbances are forecast to continue into 11 December, likely resulting in G2 (Moderate) storm levels - and another Watch has been issued accordingly. While SWPC forecasters are fairly confident in CME arrival at Earth, timing and geomagnetic storm intensity are less certain. Continue to monitor our SWPC webpage for the latest conditions and forecast."

Inspiration

10 things to do if you're celebrating the holidays alone

**If you or anyone you know is planning on traveling to meet with family this season, be sure to check out the CDC guidelines for holiday gatherings.** This year, there are two sides of the holiday spirit: getting creative and doing more and people who aren't doing much at all. Some families can get together. Maybe they have to go without their elderly relatives. Maybe they can't meet at all. Some people will be entirely alone, and others will find themselves experiencing the season with people they usually wouldn't -- like their roommates. Regardless of who you might be spending the holidays with, we are all feeling a little bit alone. Here’s what you can do to feel a little closer to family and friends while staying #togetherapart.©Ray Laskowitz/Lonely PlanetMake homemade holiday cards: While the holiday card industry has stabilized over the last couple of years, sending the family photo for Christmas isn't as popular among younger families. But this year, it could make you feel more connected. For those of you with a big contact list, printing traditional cards is a great idea. Get creative with the photo section (since you won't necessarily get the family photo op). Maybe you ask everyone to send a goofy selfie card via snail mail that can be put in the tree or decorate the mantle. Start a new project: It's probably true that the majority of us experienced some sort of shift in perspective. Now is an important time to invest in yourself and what you want. This doesn't have to be big. You can start an indoor herb garden, pick up knitting, design your dream island in Animal Crossing. Or you can do something you've always wanted to do, like write that book or build that new shed. The point is to spend more time on you without a lot of pressure. There was this huge wave of "look at all this time I have. How much can I do with it?" mentality at the beginning of quarantine that falls back into the fast capitalist crux. Take it slow to give yourself distractions and time to process what is actually happening. Set the mood with your zoom background: Friends and family are opting for virtual holidays this year if they can’t make the journey or don't want to risk their elderly loved ones' health. Just because you might be miles apart doesn't mean it can't be festive. If you're decorating your physical space to make you feel in the mood offline, make sure that you decorate behind your designated zoom space. Put up the tree or string some lights. Get creative at placement and assortment of items. If you want to take this one step further or sillier, find online zoom backgrounds that reflect some crazy ski destination or look like you are in Santa's workshop. Dress up like you haven't gone out in 6 months: Regardless of whether or not you are getting together with many people or if it's just your roommates and the dog, make it a worthy occasion. You will have at least one memory that looked different than the rest. Online shopping soared since stay-at-home orders started. There's bound to be a new outfit in that closet of yours you bought for the next time you go out. Well, why not now? Coordinate with anyone in your house or plan to send the pictures to. Secret Santa: Send small gifts to your friends and family who live farther away via snail mail; make surprise drop-offs for anyone who lives close. Maybe it's not so secret, but receiving the gifts will still put smiles on everyone's faces. Good, mailable ideas include books, jewelry, paint by numbers, or care packages. This is also a good idea if money is a little tighter this year. If you have a secret Santa group, you only need to buy for one person, but everyone gets treated. Make sure to set a mail-by deadline, so everyone is receiving them at relatively the same time. Then be sure to do a zoom gift unwrapping to revel in the spirit a little longer. Watch Grey's Anatomy: A lot of people are still loyal fans and watch every season. Others have come in and out, but right now the doctors we trust are handling life in real-time. They thought long and hard about whether they wanted to touch COVID this season, but they realized they were always meant to show us real people and real truths. This pandemic has changed the way doctors live, think, breathe, and be a doctor. They decided to pay them tribute with a real but still approachable look at what today means. This season is supposed to have lots of twists and turns to keep on a little light of escapism while still offering some truth. Online volunteering with the UN: Nope! This didn't start with COVID-19. The UN employs 12,000 online volunteers a year to tackle some of their most pressing issues (gender equality, poverty, climate change, etc.) across 187 countries. On the volunteering homepage, you can navigate opportunities by skill set. They look for artists, writers, educators, and so much more. Becoming a registered volunteer only takes a couple of minutes and is a great way to make some good happen out of our not so typical holiday. Remember, the season has always been about giving back. Now you can do it from the comfort of your own home. ©New Africa/ShutterstockGet creative with the cocktails: Going out for drinks with your friends and family kind of feels like a thing of the past right now. If you're like us, and you're missing the delicious bartender (we mean drink) and want to spice up your kitchen bar, get creative with cocktails. There's a website that will tell you what kind of cocktails you can make based on the ingredients in your kitchen. Check it out. Since it's the holidays, why don't you try a spiked apple cider with a cinnamon stick inside? Or maybe a plum sangria for your roommates. The possibilities are endless. Drive-thru lights show: This one seems like an easy given. Light shows are always a staple for the holiday season. Bonus -- they're usually outside. This year, the only thing you have to worry about is how crowded it is, but many activities regulate the amount of people let in at a time. If you still don't want to take the risk, grab some hot chocolate, hop in the car, listen to holiday music and drive around the neighborhood. See who is doing lights. You can see who is doing more than usual or less. The ones who aren't doing a lot this year might go on your secret Santa hit list! Ignore it all together: Honestly, it's 2020. You can do whatever you friggin' please. This will (hopefully) be the only year you can call "pandemic" as an excuse to get out of Thanksgiving dinner with relatives you don't ever get along with. Order take out instead. Grab a glass of wine. And go watch a movie.