Spend a winter weekend along the snowy banks of the St. Croix River, and you'll find a mix of holiday bustle and time-honored traditions.
Stillwater, Minnesota, and Hudson, Wisconsin, the busiest towns on the St. Croix, have a sugarplum-magic to them in December. Visitors flock here from the Twin Cities (just a half-hour southwest) to peek in shop windows, curl up in cozy bookstores and linger over holiday feasts. People eager to slow down even more take a wintry drive along the silent St. Croix, a 165-mile-long waterway traveled by fur traders and Scandinavian settlers, Chippewa and Sioux.
Click ahead for highlights of a winter visit to the St. Croix River. Pictured: Stillwater tucks into the valley like a toy town in a model railway.
A Swedish-garbed Santa sometimes greets visitors at the Gammelgarden Museum in Scandia, Minnesota. Gammelgarden, which means "old farm" in Swedish, is just that -- an old farm and museum paying tribute to the area's Swedish heritage.
The museum's five historic buildings close mid-October, but the delightful gift shop, Scandia Butik, remains open through late December. Stop by for a wealth of gift ideas -- woolen clothing, Swedish rugs and traditional welcome lights used by Swedes during Advent.
Click to the next slide for information on the museum's annual Lucia Dagen service.
In mid-December, the Gammelgarden museum hosts Lucia Dagen -- Lucia Day, which is all about celebrating light during dark December. The day begins with a predawn, candlelit church service (entirely in Swedish) inside Gammelgarden's 1856 log church, followed by a breakfast of traditional foods such as lefse, lucia katta buns, pickled herring and spritz cookies. It's an amazingly peaceful, moving way to spend a frigid winter morning.
Lucia Dagen 
Many families make a trip to St. Croix Valley Trees a holiday tradition. This family-owned farm in Somerset, Wisconsin, offers cut-your-own trees and much more -- wreaths, ornaments, covered-wagon rides, shopping, snacks and children's activities. Grab warm fried cookies, watch the dancing puppets or the train in the barn, explore the enchanted forest trail, check out the antique tractors, and listen to the player piano.
The St. Croix Festival Theatre in St. Croix Falls is community theater at its best. Founded in 1990, this nonprofit theater, featuring local and professional actors, has produced more than 110 plays. The theater boasts a volunteer roster of more than 100, a significant number in a town of just over 2,000 residents. The building was built in 1917 as a vaudeville house and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Check the website for the current play schedule.
The 123-mile St. Croix Scenic Byway follows the Minnesota side of the river. North of Stillwater, open fields and pine forests cradle tiny towns of buttoned-up houses. Relax and enjoy the scenery along the river and at towns such as Marine on St. Croix, where the Christ Lutheran Church looks as if it inspired a postcard.
Parts of the St. Croix are a designated National Scenic Riverway. Popular winter activities on and along the river include ice fishing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. In St. Croix Falls, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Visitor Center (open seasonally) features interactive exhibits about area history and geology as well as an 18-minute film, St. Croix: A Northwoods Journey.
Seasons on St. Croix Gallery This Hudson art gallery showcases 160 artists, most of whom are regional. Choose from clay, glass, jewelry, sculpture, metal, mixed media, fiber, wood, watercolor, pastels, oil, acrylic and photography. (715) 381-2906; seasonsonstcroix.com 
Cooks of Crocus Hill Check out thousands of types of cookware, bakeware, utensils, gadgets, dinnerware and gourmet food at this Stillwater kitchen supply store. (651) 351-1144; cooksofcrocushill.com 
Kathe Wohlfahrt The Stillwater Christmas store is the only U.S. locations of the German ornament-maker. (651) 275-1236; christmasfromgermany.com 
La Rue Marche In Hudson, this stylish boutique features trendy, upscale clothing and accessories. (715) 386-1969; laruemarche.com 
Luhrs/Bjornson Artworks This lovely St. Croix Falls gallery and gift shop features the work of a husband and wife team; he works with pottery, she paints. (715) 483-9612
Mara-Mi In Stillwater, this boutique is a parchment heaven for all who love paper, stationery, and paper-minded gifts. (651) 689-1730; mara-mi.com 
Valley Bookseller This stellar independent bookshop on Main Street Stillwater offers a large inventory in a bright and friendly atmosphere. (651) 430-3385; valleybookseller.com 
Pictured: Glass trees twinkle at Seasons on St. Croix Gallery in Hudson.
Rivertown Inn (pictured) Chef-prepared breakfasts (plus wine tastings and dinners) make this Stillwater's most memorable B&B. (651) 430-2955; rivertowninn.com 
Ann Bean Mansion The cozy Tower Room offers sweeping Stillwater views. (877) 837-4400; annbeanmansion.com 
St. Croix River Inn On a residential street in Osceola, Wisconsin, this peaceful spot offers river views and private breakfasts. (715) 294-4248; stcroixriverinn.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® November/December 2010.)