Santa travels the world over, but he surely feels most at home in the region’s cozy, small cities. In these Christmassy destinations, the Jolly Old Elf—and everyone else—can relax and enjoy holiday getaways amid spectacular light displays, festivals, unique shops, concerts, fireworks, and more. These small towns that celebrate the holidays in a big way will fill you with the spirit of the season.
Top Christmas towns in the Midwest
1. St. Charles, Missouri
For nearly 50 years, Santa and holiday legends like Scrooge, Jack Frost, and the Sugar Plum Fairy have made the brick-lined sidewalks of Main Street in St. Charles a favorite holiday hangout during Saint Charles Christmas Traditions. They’ll parade along the cobblestone streets accompanied by fife and drum on the day after Thanksgiving and remain until December 24. Visitors can greet Santa and his friends on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays while shopping, as roaming carolers perform impromptu concerts and vendors hawk hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts.
“Come on Wednesday nights for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when you might get invited to take part in one of the scenes from the book,” said Ryan Cooper, Christmas Traditions director who also portrays Jack Frost. “Don’t miss the activities at Frontier Park at the Katy Depot on Friday nights—the night of our Krampus Karnival.”
2. Ste. Geneviève, Missouri
Party like its 1745 in the old French village of Ste. Geneviève where the new blends with old traditions during the Holiday Christmas Festival on the first full weekend in December. On Saturday, December 4, festivities kick off with a parade led by Santa, followed by shopping opportunities and open houses honoring French Christmas traditions. On Saturday afternoon, the Felix Vallé House State Historic Site, which dates to 1818, re-creates Le Réveillon—a traditional feast usually served after midnight Christmas Mass that includes 13 desserts honoring Jesus and his disciples.
Then return to Ste. Geneviève on December 31 for La Guignolée, a French New Year’s Eve tradition. Follow costumed La Guignolèe revelers as they march to select sites in town and sing a beggar’s song for drinks and favors. The party continues at their final stop, the Centre for French Colonial Life, and participants welcome the New Year.
3. Galena, Illinois
Dubbed the most Christmassy town in Illinois by several media outlets, Galena redefines holiday lights. Perched on a hillside along the Galena River, the town heralds the holidays with a bang during the Holiday Fire in the Sky fireworks show on December 4. Watch the pyrotechnics from just about anywhere in town, but the arched Grant Park Pedestrian Bridge provides a great viewpoint.
Galena’s seasonal light show continues with the Night of the Luminaria and Living Windows on December 11, when more than 5,000 luminaries illuminate the city, creating an old-fashioned, romantic holiday experience. Follow the luminaries along the half-mile shopping district, where 120 shops are sandwiched along the winding route, many decorated with holly and pine roping. While searching for holiday gifts, shoppers will see people performing holiday-inspired scenes and music in a host of shop windows.
4. Lindsborg, Kansas
Santa isn’t the only gift giver who visits the Swedish village of Lindsborg. St. Lucia, who appears dressed in white and wearing a crown of holly and candles, arrives on the second Saturday of December (December 11 this year) to celebrate Lindsborg’s St. Lucia Festival. Usually portrayed by a local high school student, St. Lucia oversees the day’s festivities, which include folk dancing, live music, and the distribution of Swedish pepparkakor (ginger cookies)—a favored treat of festivalgoers—and the tomte, which are Swedish elves or trolls. “They’re considered troublemakers unless you give them treats,” explained Holly Lofton, director of the Lindsborg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We leave treats out for them just like we do for Santa. Tomtes are always found in Lindsborg at Christmastime.”
Among Lindsborg’s other holiday festivities are the Snowflake Parade and Artists’ Studio Open House on December 4, followed by a music concert at Bethany College on December 5. Plus, stop by anytime to see a herd of decorated fiberglass Dala horses scattered around town. A popular Swedish icon, the rounded and tail-free horses symbolize welcome in Lindsborg and recall the city’s heritage.
5. Santa Claus, Indiana
Santa may live at the North Pole, but his mailing address is in Santa Claus, Indiana. Just ask the postmaster, who hand-cancels thousands of cards and letters at the Santa Claus U.S. Post Office. Tourists often bring their Christmas cards to be postmarked there during Santa Claus’ Christmas Celebration, held the first three weekends of December.
Visitors can shop and nibble sweet treats at Santa’s Candy Castle and marvel at the Santa Claus Land of Lights, a 1.2-mile drive-through light extravaganza at Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Resort, which is held from November 25 through December 27. Take a selfie at the 22-foot-tall Santa statue located at the Santa Claus Museum and Village, which houses the original Santa Claus post office. Elves stand ready to help kids pen letters to the man himself. Step inside the village’s 1880 church and you may catch a concert or a reading of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Top Christmas towns in the South
6. Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Resembling a Victorian village found under a Christmas tree, Eureka Springs virtually glows at Christmastime. Built on a mountainside in northwest Arkansas, the town’s 19th-century historic district is festooned with glittering lights and evergreens. The setting provides the perfect backdrop for the annual Christmas Parade of Lights on December 3.
Catch the trolley that loops around town for a tour past decorated shops, galleries, eateries, and the city’s famous springs and pocket parks. Hop off at the AAA Three-Diamond 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa and explore its Christmas Tree Forest, where decorated trees illuminate the mountaintop property December 4–31.
For more sparkling trees, drive through a forest of 300 trees and dozens of nativities that light the way to the seven-story Christ of the Ozarks statue at The Great Passion Play outdoor theater’s grounds on weekends from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day.
7. Bentonville, Arkansas
Become immersed in a symphony of lights and sound in North Forest Lights, a dynamic installation set on a portion of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s North Forest Trail in Bentonville, which makes for a cozy romantic getaway itself. Not a holiday light show per se, the unique display helps visitors connect with nature through January 2, 2022. Enhance your visit with the North Forest Snow Globe Experience. By reservation, guests enjoy food and libations in large see-through snow globes—outfitted with cozy seating—that are tucked into the forest.
Transition from the forest to Bentonville’s downtown city square where Lighting of the Square on November 20 ushers in the yuletide. The city drapes every available tree, shrub, and building with lights through January 1, 2022. Holiday festivities also include the Winter Market, a pop-up craft and gift Christmas market on November 27, and a parade on December 11.
8. Natchitoches, Louisiana
In its 95th year, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival ranks among the country’s oldest holiday festivals. What began as a one-day party has grown into six weeks of festivities, including a spectacular light display. More than 300,000 lights and 100 elaborate display pieces shine in downtown and the Cane River Lake levee area.
The kick-off party, Turn on the Holidays, will include fireworks and musical entertainment on November 20. That’s when Natchitoches switches on the lights that will burn bright through January 6, 2022. In between those dates, visitors can enjoy concerts, home tours, a lighted boat parade, pop-up Christmas markets, the Kids Fest area, and more fireworks displays. And don’t forget to eat like a local—try the famous Natchitoches meat pie and an eggnog daiquiri.
9. Lafayette, Louisiana
Spirits of Christmas past seem a little more spirited in Lafayette, especially at the Acadian Village and Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park—two sites dedicated to preserving Acadian culture and their holiday traditions.
Acadian Village boasts 500,000 lights that flood the village with cheer during its holiday celebration, Noel Acadian au Village, from December 4 through 23. Visitors will admire the decorations among the 19th century Cajun houses in this open-air museum village. And Vermilionville’s Old Time Winter Traditions Celebration from December 14 through 23 presents music, storytellers, crafts, and food from the late 1700s to the late 1800s. Sip a warm cup of apple cider while chatting with Papa Noël, as Santa is known in Cajun country.
10. Oxford, Mississippi
You’ll sense joy with one step under a canopy of holiday lights above the Oxford square, the epicenter of the town’s seasonal activities and shopping. Oxford sales and marketing manager Nadia Thornton explained that strings of lights cascade from the courthouse clock tower to the buildings’ rooftops, a practice brought back to the square in 2018 after an extended absence.
Oxford’s square hosts Holly Jolly Holidays during December, offering guests a chance to catch a carriage ride, visit Santa, go on an elf scavenger hunt, ice skate, and more. After filling your soul with holiday cheer, fill your belly with fine southern cuisine at the landmark City Grocery, operated by James Beard Award–winning chef John Currence.
Suzanne Corbett is a contributor from St. Louis, Missouri.
AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.