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Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, it's still the best time of year to brave the elements, get outdoors, and take in all that the seasonal celebrations have to offer -- after all Christmas isn't just an excuse for retail spending. So whether you've been naughty or nice, your children are going to love getting into these Yuletide festivities across the U.S.

Parades

  • Richmond, Virginia hosts its 25th annual Christmas Day Parade (www.richmondchristmasparade.org) on December 6, 2008 at 10am. The Parade starts at the Science Museum on West Broad Street and travels east to Seventh Street. Last year's holiday event attracted more than 100,000 spectators and it is the largest single day event of the year in Virginia. This year's parade promises huge high-flying balloons (including a massive Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer), elaborate floats, star spangled marching bands, and, of course, Santa Claus.
  • Celebrating its centennial this year, the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade (www.christmasboatparade.com) will set the harbor ablaze for five consecutive nights, beginning Wednesday, December 17 and ending Sunday, December 21, 2008. The parade starts off Bay Island at 6:30pm and finishes at the same site at 9pm each evening. This South Californian tradition includes yachts, schooners, boats, canoes and kayaks adorned with thousands of lights, costumed carolers, holiday decorations and music. Surrounding the water, beautifully decorated bayside homes and businesses add to the holiday spirit with the Ring of Lights, including everything from roof-top animated scenes to dancing Christmas trees.
  • Formerly known as the Hollywood Christmas Parade, like many things in Hollywood, the parade recently changed its name and is now known as the Hollywood Santa Parade (www.hollywoodsantaparade.com). The parade, which is a Los Angeles tradition, will take place along a two-and-a-half-mile route on Sunday, November 30, 2008 from 5pm. You can buy Grandstand seats for $35 or slum it like the rest of us and watch at street level. Catch glimpses of Hollywood stars, television personalities and miscellaneous B-grade celebrities, but it's more likely that your children will know who they are but you won't. There are also numerous floats, marching bands and equestrian and novelty acts. If it's a nostalgic small town feel you are after, than Peoria, IL is the place to be for their 121st annual Santa Claus Parade (www.peoriaevents.com). About 70 miles north of Springfield, this is the oldest Christmas parade in the U.S. The parade step offs on Friday, November 28, 2008 (Black Friday) at 10:15 am from the Peoria Central Firehouse on Monroe Street and this year's theme is "Rock'n & Roll'n Christmas." Expect to see fireworks, live reindeer, circus wagons, and parade floats.

Store Windows

My favorite Christmas activity as a child is alive and well in cities large and small across America. Lining up behind the velvet rope in the freezing cold is somehow pleasurable when there is a fantasy world behind glass waiting for you.

New York is home to arguably the country's best and most ornate department store Christmas windows with themes including Christmas traditions, animals, fairytales, nursery rhymes and favorite story books.

Lights

Although there are dozens of cities that offer lights festivals with entire sections of towns illuminated for the entire month of December (like Pigeon Forge, TN, Austin, TX, Charleston, SC, Branson, MO, and Battle Creek, MI to name but a few), there are also several zoos that put on a great winter wonderland of light and activities to coincide with the festive season. You can combine an evening trip to zoo with the twinkle of millions of holiday lights, magically illuminated animal displays, music, performances, ice sculptures and laser shows at:

  • Zoolights Festival at Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago (www.lpzoo.org) -- most nights between November 28 to January 4, 2009 from 5pm to 9pm
  • Wildlights at Columbus Zoo, Ohio (www.colszoo.org) from 21 Nov 2008 to 3 Jan 2009
  • Wildlights at Denver Zoo (www.denverzoo.org) from December 12, 2008 to January 4, 2009
  • Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo, NY (www.bronxzoo.com) -- December 6, 2008 to January 4, 2009
  • Festival of Lights at Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (www.cincinnatizoo.org) -- nightly from November 28, 2008 to January 3, 2009, 5pm to 9pm (closed December 24 and 25). Enjoy half-priced admission December 1 to 3, 8 to 10 and 15 to 17.
  • Holiday magic at Brookfield Zoo, Chicago (www.brookfieldzoo.org) -- December 6 to 7, 13 to 14, 20 to 21, and 26 to 31, 2008, 4pm to 9pm

Trees Washington DC's Pathway of Peace is part of its Pageant of Peace and is made up of 56 decorated trees representing all 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia surrounding the National Christmas Tree (www.nps.gov/whho/national_christmas_tree_program.htm) on the Ellipse, south of the White House. All 57 trees will be lit each evening from dusk until 11pm, from December 14, 2008 until January 1, 2009. The base of the tree features a large-scale model train set that will run daily from 11am to 11pm and each night from December 6 to 23, there are musical groups performing free concerts for visitors to the Ellipse area.

Perhaps the country most famous Christmas tree is at the Rockefeller Center (www.rockefellercenter.com) in New York. This year, the tree will be illuminated at dusk on December 3. The tradition began in 1933 and each year Millions of New Yorkers and visitors come to see the tree, go ice skating on the rink below and walk among the horn-blowing angel displays on the plaza. Decorated with thousands of colored lights and topped with a massive crystal star, this year's 72-foot-tall Norway spruce hails from a private garden in New Jersey.

Rich's Great Tree -- Atlanta, GA -- an Atlanta tradition since 1948, this giant tree used to be located downtown on the roof of the Rich's Department store, but it has since been moved to Lenox Square and the roof of that Rich's store, which is now Macy's -- so it is now known as the Macy's Great Tree. As it is each year, the tree will be lit on Thanksgiving night (November 27, 2008) with this year's special guests including LeAnn Rimes, Third Day, Truth Squad, and the Macy's All-star Holiday Choir appearing onstage. (www.atlanta-downtown.com/events)