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6 ways to celebrate the holidays outdoors with family

Aerial view of Labrie Family Skate at Puddle Dock Pond, the seasonal outdoor ice-skating rink, the grounds, and historic houses at Strawbery Banke Museum decorated for Candlelight Stroll. An ice rink and paths illuminated by candle lanterns are winter highlights at Portsmouth’s Strawbery Banke Museum. Photo by David J. Murray/ClearEyePhoto.com

Everyone is finding a new appreciation for gathering outdoors. But doing so feels a lot more challenging in the dead of a New England winter, when daylight is scarce and the wind chill pushes temperatures to the single digits.

While meeting friends and family outside in December does not hold the same appeal as it does on a lazy August evening, you might just embrace these short winter days by mixing the magic of a dusting of snow with holiday light displays or amusement park rides. Start a new holiday tradition with these 6 sparkling distractions from the cold.

Maine

1. Gardens aglow 

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens celebrates the season with displays that use more than 650,000 LEDs. Photo courtesy of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Summer is a pretty special time to visit the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, but the Boothbay site really shines in winter as more than 650,000 LED lights turn roughly 14 acres of the gardens into a magical fairyland that invites a festive stroll. The displays always evoke something new. Last year, lighting designer Brent McHale celebrated Maine’s forests, waters, and wetlands by illuminating sculptures and buildings, wrapping trees, and incorporating uplighting to highlight iconic shapes in nature, from ledge formations to stately pines. 

Get your tickets early—last year more than 100,000 visitors made the trek—and plan to stay for at least an hour. Huts sell hot cocoa and there may even be a food truck dishing up blueberry crisp this year. Adults $22, reservations required. 4–9 p.m. Open Thursday–Sunday November 19–December 18 (closed November 24), then daily December 21–31 (closed Christmas Eve and Day).

You may also like: 6 romantic winter getaways in Northern New England

2. Winter wonders

Trees wrapped in lights from the holidays at Sandy Hill Farm

Lasers and lights illuminate the recently created holiday hike at Sandy Hill Farm. Photo by Larry Widi

Launched by Sandy Hill Farm owner and farmer Bill Widi as a way to brighten people’s spirits as the pandemic raged in 2020, this magical post-sunset walk has quickly grown to more than a million lights and now even includes lasers. Visitors to this Eliot location follow a mile-long path through mature forests, passing immersive displays that include favorites like Santa’s sleigh; a train; and moose, reindeer, and polar bears, alongside many new additions. Guided by Widi’s research on state-of-the-art design around the world, Sandy Hill Farm artisans construct 85% of the show’s props.

In conjunction with the event, the Christmas tree area is also growing every year—visitors can walk among as many as 25 fully decorated live pine trees, returning year-after-year to see their progress. Adults, $18, reservations required. Timed entry every 15 minutes, 4:30–8:45 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday nights November 23–December 11, then nightly December 14–31. 

You may also like: Where to go snowshoeing in New England

New Hampshire

3. Visit St. Nick

After the pandemic forced a 2-year holiday hiatus, the yuletide-themed Santa’s Village in Jefferson is back, glowing with more than 1 million sparkly lights. Dress as if you’re headed to the North Pole—the weather can be blustery in the White Mountains around the holidays, and you’ll want to be snuggly warm as you hop aboard Rudy’s Rapid Transit Coaster and the Skyway Sleigh monorail.

Stay until dusk to enjoy Santa’s Christmas Light Show outdoors on Main Street, perhaps while sipping hot cocoa or enjoying mini “Doe-nuts.” Santa and his reindeer are there for photos, and you can decorate your own gingerbread person at the Sugar ’n’ Spice Bakery. Adults, $52, reservations required. November 12–December 19. Saturdays and Black Friday 11 a.m.–7 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

4. Candlelight stroll

Strawbery Banke Museum role player

Costumed role players will be on hand if the Strawbery Banke Museum reopens its homes for the holidays. Photo by David J. Murray/ClearEyePhoto.com

The charms of the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth are cozy and quiet—hundreds of candle lanterns lighting the paths between historic homes decorated with handmade ornaments; a roaring bonfire (perhaps with someone telling stories around it); and a lighted ice-skating rink.

Before the pandemic, visitors could enter the homes and travel through time, from the 1800s-era Christmas traditions of the Goodwin family to the early 20th-century Hanukkah preparations at the Shapiro house, all re-enacted by costumed role players. Indoor spaces had been closed during the pandemic, but this year, the homes will once again be open for the holidays. Adults $20. December 3–18. Saturdays 5–9 p.m. and Sundays 4–8 p.m.

You may also like: 7 cross-country skiing spots in Northern New England

Vermont

5. Winter lights

Lights illuminate the Ticonderoga steamboat

Built locally more than 100 years ago, the Ticonderoga is a highlight of the Shelburne Museum’s holiday celebration. Photo by Lee Krohn

The Ticonderoga, a 220-foot steamboat built in Shelburne in 1906, is the visual centerpiece of this event at the Shelburne Museum, launched for the first time in 2021. The vessel appears to float in a sea of thousands of blue lights that surround its sparkling hull. That’s not the only attraction at this event, which nearly sold out its 25,000 tickets in its debut year. There are half a dozen eye-catching displays to stroll past, including Beach Woods, where sparkling lights shimmer and cascade in a grove of massive pine trees as magical music plays.

After your walk, warm up with a beverage at the museum’s Weathervane Café. Buy tickets early, especially if you want to visit on a weekend. Adults, $15. 5–8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday, November 25 through January 1, except Christmas Eve and Christmas.

6. Revisit St. Nick

Santa's Land Tree Lights

Although Santa’s Land is open when it’s warm, it takes on an even more festive air when it’s cold. Photo by David Haversat

Since 1957, Santa’s Land in Putney has been open from mid-summer until Christmas, celebrating Santa and his elves with jolly displays and gentle rides. While Christmas in July is nice, the charming park is particularly delightful when covered in a blanket of snow—which is often the case at this time of year. Enjoy the carousel and the antique-car ride before stopping by the School House to make crafts or write a letter to Santa.

If you’re seeking St. Nick himself, he can usually be found by the warm fireplace in the gift shop. Christmas is on display throughout, of course, and hot chocolate and snacks are available to keep you warm. Don’t worry about the weather—if workers can clear the walkways and rides for safe operation, the park will be open. Adults, $17.95. 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until Christmas.

New England native Jeanne O’Brien Coffey delights in sharing stories about her corner of the world. Her work has also appeared in Boston and Naturally, Danny Seo magazines.

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