1. It’s Lit
Brewery Lights St. Louis Thursdays–Sundays, November 15–December 30 The Anheuser-Busch tour center delivers a royal holiday treatment that’s family-friendly and largely free. Get in line for samples from the world’s largest brewer. Cozy up to a fire for s’mores. Or take your best-ever Christmas card photo with Budweiser Clydesdales. budweisertours.com
Photo: Bob Stefko
2. Outpost on the Prairie
Candlelight Tour Fort Scott, Kansas December 7–8 Hoop skirts twirl. Boots shuffle. Then the guide at Fort Scott invites everyone watching onto the Victorian dance floor—sneakers, khakis and all.
Each December, the 1842 fort opens for two nights of tours. (Secure tickets in November.) Visitors walk paths lit by 700 wooden lanterns and meet reenactors along the way. A stop in the armory might bring them up close to historical weapons. In the officer quarters, soldiers’ wives vividly describe antebellum life. Hot cider and peppernut cookies follow, a sweet hit to fuel the drive home. Ninety minutes south of Kansas City, the sky above the fort is big, dark and quiet, just as it was 175 years ago. nps.gov/fosc
Photo: Michael Snell
3. Deck the Halls
Winter Wonderland Sioux Falls, South Dakota November 16–January 6 Cue up a merry playlist for a drive through Falls Park’s massive light display. Or view it from above: Climb the park’s five-story tower or take a chopper ride over downtown. visitsiouxfalls.com
Last year, there were 25 miles of light strings, 355,926 LED bulbs, 270 decorated trees, 160 helicopters flights (with four wedding proposals).
4. Rock Music
Caroling in the Cave Blue Mounds, Wisconsin November 30–December 2 Voices reverberate off the walls of a sanctuary that predates humans, but in the quiet between songs, you can hear “cave kisses”: water droplets falling from millennia-old stalactites. Tickets go fast for this annual weekend of candlelit choral performances in the North Cavern of Cave of the Mounds, a National Natural Landmark in southwest Wisconsin. But if you miss the chance, there are also Sing-A-Long Caroling Cave Tours on Sundays in December. caveofthemounds.com
More holiday caving Ohio’s Hocking Hills will throw its Christmas in Ash Cave party December 8.
5. Tiny Town Cratchit
Dickens Village Festival Garrison, North Dakota November 23–25, November 30– December 1, December 7–8 Leave it to the far reaches of middle America to preserve the quirky ghosts of Christmas British. Garrison in northwest North Dakota became the state’s Christmas Capital by saturating its streets, shops and homes in all things A Christmas Carol (for 25 years straight now). That’s no small undertaking for a town of 1,532 residents. Join locals for high tea on opening weekend, then enter some of Garrison’s most storied homes, including the Merry House of Mystery. The Queen Elizabus double-decker offers a tour of lights and whisks visitors off to a parade and performances starring Tiny Tim and Ebenezer. dickensfestival.com
6. All Aboard
North Pole Express Owosso, Michigan Weekends, November 16–December 16 When you watch the 2004 film The Polar Express (based on Michigander Chris Van Allsburg’s book), you’re hearing the actual brakes, bells and whistles of the Pere Marquette 1225. Each winter, that same 1941 steam engine carries families on an hour-long trek from Owosso (40 miles northeast of Lansing) to the North Pole—that is, to the Village of Ashley Country Christmas celebration. (Note: The coveted tickets often disappear weeks in advance.)
During the two-hour visit in Ashley, kids can build a wooden toy in Santa’s Workshop, play carnival games or ride a pony. Singing car hosts serenade travelers on the ride back to Owosso. michigansteamtrain.com/npe
Photo: Johnny Quirin
7. Simple Gifts
Winter Open House Omaha December 1–2 Watch demos and buy gifts from the 70-plus artists who work in the Hot Shops Art Center in North Omaha. hotshopsartcenter.com
On our wish list …
• Greg Macdonald’s painted wood carvings
• Crystal Forge glass ornaments
• Pastel paintings by Cheri Ginsburg
8. Have Yourself a German Little Christmas
Christkindlmarket Des Moines November 30–December 2 Polka tunes and the buzz of Andy Klindt’s chain saw cut across Cowles Commons plaza in downtown Des Moines. By the time he turns a slab of walnut into two pine trees, a crowd has formed. The onlookers clap, and one woman squeezes forward to buy the freshly hewn sculpture.
In Germany, stopping by an outdoor winter market after work for beer or mulled wine is a tradition dating back to the late Middle Ages. Des Moines’ version launched in 2016 and nearly doubled in size last year. But it still feels like a secret. Many vendors in Bavarian-style craft huts have a European or handmade bent, and food stalls sell cabbage rolls, brats and, of course, mugs of warm Glühwein. christkindlmarketdsm.com
Other Christkindlmarkts Chicago hosts one of the largest markets (now with three locations), November 16–December 24; Carmel, Indiana, will organize its second Christkindlmarkt this year, November 17–December 23.
Photo: Carson Downing
9. Making Tracks
Jingle Rails Indianapolis November 17–January 21 Every year, a talented artistic team deploys pinecones, acorns, tree bark and other natural materials to create vast model train-scapes at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. The displays fill multiple rooms with landmarks of the American West and Indianapolis destinations rendered in tiny botanical detail. eiteljorg.org
Keep an eye out for …
• Yellowstone National Park, with a mini smoke-blowing Old Faithful.
• The Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
• The Golden Gate Bridge, tall enough for visitors to walk beneath it.
• A snow-covered ski and snowboard resort, active chairlifts and all.
• A mini Route 66, from Chicago to California’s Santa Monica Pier.
10. All That Glitters
Castle Noel Medina, OhioYear-round Hollywood Christmas props and garish displays from Saks Fifth Avenue never die. They simply get enshrined at Castle Noel, a repurposed church in Ohio. Owner Mark Klaus—yes, his real name—calls his kaleidoscope of yuletide fandom the world’s largest year-round, indoor Christmas attraction. We believe him. castlenoel.com
Don’t leave without …
• Spotting Will Ferrell’s Elf tights and jacket.
• Checking out Cousin Eddie’s RV from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
• Tackling Santa’s Chimney Squeeze.
• Watching your kid greet St. Nick (November 17–December 23) on Santa Klaus Mountain, then whooshing down a replica slide from A Christmas Story.
Handel’s Messiah Twin Cities December 20–21, December 22–23 Strings, trumpets and voices crescendo, then fall to a holy hush. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra revives this heavenly score in Minneapolis’ Basilica of Saint Mary and Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul. thespco.org
Photo: Ackerman & Gruber
12. Keeping the Flame
St. Lucia Festival of Lights Chicago December 13 In the 3rd century, teenage Lucia became a martyr (and eventually a saint) after smuggling food to Christians hiding in Rome’s catacombs. A crown of candles freed her arms for the task. Sweden honors Lucia’s legacy as a bearer of light December 13. Children rise early to sing songs and serve their family coffee and buns. Chicago’s Andersonville rekindles the tradition with a candlelit procession. Girls in costume walk through the historically Swedish neighborhood, then gather inside the Swedish American Museum for singing. andersonville.org
Photo: David Nevala