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Why you should celebrate the holidays in Richmond, Virginia

Man pushing a stroller with 2 children during the CarMax Tacky Lights Tour annual charity run A family participates in the CarMax Tacky Light Run. Photo courtesy Sports Backers

Richmond might be far from the North Pole, but it takes the holiday season seriously. With crazy Christmas lights, a giant gingerbread house, fun runs, and seasonal cocktails, you’re unlikely to hear a “humbug” uttered anywhere near Virginia’s capital come December. All this makes the city a surprising place to spend this festive season, with plenty of special holiday events and activities. Here are some of the many reasons to plan a visit.

Lights galore

A festively decorated house along the Tacky Lights Tour route

A festive, decorated house is a highlight along the Tacky Lights Tour. Photo by Michael Simon Photography

For a classy city, Richmond delights in celebrating its tacky side. For years, residents have tried to outdo each other in a megawatt Christmas light showdown—all for the rest of us to enjoy. The Richmond Times-Dispatch produces the annual Tacky Lights Tour and lists top displays across the region.

The city’s battle of the bulbs started when a popular radio announcer began naming his favorite homes and neighborhoods to visit during the holidays. In order to make the list, a house is judged by the creativity of its display. Most fans tour the displays by car, while some have even rented a limo for the occasion. 

An annual charity run on December 10 begins at Mid-Lothian Mines Park and takes runners through the Walton Park neighborhood. The 6K course includes neighborhood cheer zones, holiday music, and abundant photo opportunities. Run registration, $45.

A glowing garden

Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Photo by Tom Hennessy, courtesy of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Of course, holiday displays can be elegant, too. For a dreamy display of 1 million lights, head to the Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. The walk-through show features 57 miles of light strands and scores of wrapped trees. The Darlington Oak tree alone has 12,000 lights. And it’s not just humans who get to experience the spectacle—leashed dogs are allowed on select evenings.

Dining options include reservation-only full-service meals in the visitors center, fast-casual snacks, hot drinks, and cookies. The display runs through January 8. Adults, $17 ($20 between December 16 and January 1).

Giant gingerbread house at the Jefferson Hotel

Holiday decorations inside the Jefferson Hotel lobby

Holiday decorations at the Jefferson Hotel. Photo courtesy The Jefferson Hotel

The Jefferson Hotel decks its halls with hundreds of poinsettias and long strings of lights and garlands. Many people come to see its giant gingerbread house in the Palm Court lobby, made from hundreds of pounds of gingerbread, royal icing, and candy. A 30-foot tree dominates the rotunda, with 20 smaller trees distributed throughout the building.

The popular Santa teas have sold out for 2022, but mark your calendar for September 2023 to make your reservations for next year. The hotel also offers holiday overnight packages.

Stay on track in Ashland

An Amtrak train passing through Ashland Station

An Amtrak train passes through the Christmas light–festooned historic Ashland Station. Photo courtesy Downtown Ashland Association

Nearby Ashland celebrates with its annual Light Up the Tracks events, which transform the town’s historic railroad district into an old-fashioned holiday village through January 1. Visitors can revel in a mile-long light display while they shop and dine at restaurants.

Several special events lure visitors throughout the season, including a Christmas market, a holiday parade, a beer garden sponsored by Origin Beer Lab, and a haunted walking tour that regales visitors with a Victorian Christmas tale as they stroll the decorated streets.

A Hanukkah happening

A Menorah display at Carytown Hanukkah

Menorah lighting at Carytown Hanukkah. Photo by Kehillah

While the traditional Carytown Hanukkah won’t occur in 2022, a celebration is planned for December 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Gather (Short Pump). Sponsored by Kehillah and Diversity Richmond, the free event (donations are encouraged) will include Hanukkah-themed food and drink, games, music, and a menorah lighting.

Visit with Soul Santa

Soul Santa waving

Soul Santa at Black History Museum. Photo by Victor Nash

A generation of Richmonders have grown up visiting Soul Santa at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. This free event, which lets children meet and take a picture with a Black Santa, includes a holiday craft project and museum tour. During the pandemic, the museum offered virtual Santa visits, and this year will adapt to current health conditions as required.

A King’s WinterFest

WinterFest performers in thematic costume and makeup

Live show during WinterFest at King’s Dominion. Photo by Michael Simon Photography

Magical things happen in November when Kings Dominion welcomes WinterFest, transforming the theme park’s signature Eiffel Tower into a 300-foot Christmas tree and festooning the park with millions of lights.

Along with more than 20 operating rides, families can enjoy ice skating, making holiday crafts, snapping pictures with Santa, and more than a dozen live shows, including the Charlie Brown Christmas Spectacular. Special dining options include a turkey and ham dinner, gingerbread funnel cakes, and specialty hot chocolate. The show runs on select dates through a New Year’s celebration on January 1. Adults, $32.99.

Kwanzaa celebration

People lighting candles during the Capital City Kwanzaa Festival

The candle-lighting ceremony opens the Capital City Kwanzaa Festival. Photo by Charles Williams

Holiday fun continues after Christmas on December 30 with the Capital City Kwanzaa Festival sponsored by the Elegba Folklore Society. Started in 1990, the family-focused event is one of the largest on the East Coast. It includes cultural performances, candle-lighting ceremonies, children’s celebrations, music, and the African Market shopping village. Adults, $7.

Bike the city scenery

Four people standing with their bicycles

Basket and Bike/RVA on Wheels' Holiday Classic Bike Tour. Photo by Holly Gordon, Basket and Bike

One of the best ways to take in holiday scenery is on 2 wheels. Basket and Bike/RVA on Wheels offers afternoon and early evening holiday bike tours along the riverfront to historic Shockoe Slip as the holiday lights flicker to life, ending with a beverage at Urban Farmhouse. The trip is available on conventional or e-bikes. 3–5:30 p.m. December 5–January 8. Adult bike tour, $95 classic; $125 e-bike.

Pop-up Christmas cheer

A bartender with a Santa hat shaking up drinks

A bartender works the Miracle on Cary Street pop-up at The Jasper. Photo by Adam Debrueler

If you like your holidays with a little kick and a lot of kitsch, plan a visit to Miracle on Cary Street. The Christmas pop-up takes over The Jasper, a craft-cocktail lounge that’s been named one of the top bars in the South. Not only does it glow with colored lights, but the walls are covered with presents and tinsel, and carols and other Christmas music play nonstop.

Bartenders prepare holiday-themed cocktails such as Bad Santa, Snowball Old-Fashioned, and Christmapolitan (be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol). Each drink is served in special holiday glassware, which are also for sale, letting you take care of holiday shopping while you sip your drink. Miracle, as it’s known, is open through the end of December. But be ready for a wait; if this year is like previous ones, you can expect a line out the door for the entire season.

Larry Bleiberg is an award-winning writer, travel editor, and creator of civilrightstravel.com.

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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.

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