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Best Places to Celebrate

These Midwest destinations herald the season with an attention to detail that could give Santa himself a few lessons.

More big-city moments

Country Club Plaza Lights Kansas City, Missouri For generations, Kansas Citians have gathered on Thanksgiving night to watch the holiday lights flick on, a decorating touch that lends even more romance to the beautiful Spanish-inspired architecture in this 15-block mecca of shopping and dining. (816) 753-0100; countryclubplaza.com  

Christmas at Union Station Omaha A 65-foot ceiling crowns the city’s biggest Christmas tree, adding to the wow factor of the Durham Museum. A tree lighting, concerts and nights with Santa all rock a festive feel, but our favorite: the Ethnic Holiday Festival, which draws a multicultural array of visitors and celebrates traditions from around the world. (402) 444-5071; durhammuseum.org

More big-city moments

Country Club Plaza Lights Kansas City, Missouri For generations, Kansas Citians have gathered on Thanksgiving night to watch the holiday lights flick on, a decorating touch that lends even more romance to the beautiful Spanish-inspired architecture in this 15-block mecca of shopping and dining. (816) 753-0100; countryclubplaza.com  

Christmas at Union Station Omaha A 65-foot ceiling crowns the city’s biggest Christmas tree, adding to the wow factor of the Durham Museum. A tree lighting, concerts and nights with Santa all rock a festive feel, but our favorite: the Ethnic Holiday Festival, which draws a multicultural array of visitors and celebrates traditions from around the world. (402) 444-5071; durhammuseum.org

Small-town festivities

Christmas at the Capitol Pierre, South Dakota (pictured) Even a holiday-hating Grinch would become a wide-eyed softie after seeing the 100-year-old capitol in its incarnation as a monthlong indoor forest of more than 100 trees decked by community groups. And that doesn’t even count a lighted parade and a day when politicians serve pie. (800) 962-2034; pierre.org

Candlelight Walk Medina, Ohio The home of Root Candles burns bright the weekend before Thanksgiving when more than 1,300 luminarias glow in the Public Square (35 miles southwest of Cleveland). A bandstand holds a grand Christmas tree, and horses pulling carriages clip-clop through town. (330) 952-0910; mainstreetmedina.com

Lucia Nights Bishop Hill, Illinois In an old blacksmith shop, a simple carol sung in Swedish tugs at heartstrings during this annual celebration (December 12–13, 2014), 35 miles southeast of the Quad Cities. Lucias (girls clad in white robes, red sashes and crowns of candles) serve coffee and cookies to visitors eager to learn about the little Utopian community’s Swedish heritage from storeowners, artists and musicians. (309) 927-3899; bishophill.com 

More small-town festivities

Christmas in Brown County Nashville, Indiana (pictured) For three weekends after Thanksgiving, shopping reigns in this hamlet, long a haven for artists inspired by the wooded hills 45 miles south of Indianapolis. One-of-a-kind gifts await at Acorn Cottage Gallery, Bathology and Madeline’s French Country Shop; Story Inn hosts a candlelit Victorian dinner accompanied by carols on a piano. (800) 753-3255; browncounty.com

Dickens Village Festival Garrison, North Dakota Visitors don’t mind that Charles Dickens never stepped foot in North Dakota: They’re here for the performances of  A Christmas Carol, the fruitcake toss, high tea and double-decker bus rides to Fort Stevenson. On the three weekends after Thanksgiving, street vendors also sell chicken dumpling soup. (800) 799-4242; dickensfestival.com 

Nods to history

Lighting the Serpent Adams County, Ohio (pictured) On December 21, the ancient Native American Serpent Mound (75 miles east of Cincinnati) glows with luminarias beneath the winter sky. The dusky solstice event offers a chance to appreciate the stillness in a typically too-busy season. (937) 205-0094; ohiohistory.org/museums-and-historic-sites/museum--historic-sites-by-name/serpent-mound

Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade Lawrence, Kansas Costumed horseback riders and more than 70 beautifully restored horse-drawn carriages roll down Massachusetts Street every year on the first Saturday of December. A Festival of Trees and Gingerbread House Festival round out the holiday fun. (785) 856-3040; lawrencechristmasparade.org

More nods to history

Fort Scott Candlelight Tour Fort Scott, Kansas (pictured) More than 700 lanterns guide visitors through a series of scenes chronicling 1862 Civil War events at this frontier outpost (December 5–6, 2014). Tickets go on sale November 1. (620) 223-0310; fortscott.com/

Victorian Sleighbell Parade and Old Christmas Weekend Manistee, Michigan In this onetime lumber boomtown, a 1901-themed parade ends with Percherons pulling a huge evergreen tree. Strolling carolers, roasted chestnuts, a show and open houses help round out the Victorian event (December 4–7, 2014). (231) 398-9355; visitmanistee.com

Fort Robinson Annual Historical Christmas Dinner Crawford, Nebraska Tickets for the popular feast, this year a re-creation of the soldiers’ 1933 Christmas meal, sell out fast (on sale November 3). But this excellent state park in Nebraska’s panhandle rewards the 200 ticket holders on December 6 with hospitality, history and plenty of good family-style food. (308) 665-2900; outdoornebraska.org 

Resorts that do it right

The Osthoff Resort Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (pictured) A 10-day Old World Christmas Market, cookie and cupcake decorating workshops, brunch with St. Nicholas and hayrides with caroling combine to create a perfect living Christmas card (72 miles northeast of Madison). See reviews and ratings. (855) 203-8592; osthoff.com

Great Wolf Lodge Five Midwest locations From December 1 to 25, kids can meet Santa and dine in a life-size gingerbread house, but the water park resort’s best holiday trick?  Animatronic critters in the lobby sing “Let It Snow” as foamy “snow” falls from the ceiling onto outstretched palms. Rates vary by property. See reviews of Great Wolf in Kansas CityGreat Wolf in Traverse CityGreat Wolf in Wisconsin Dells and Great Wolf in Masongreatwolf.com

More resorts that do it right

French Lick/West Baden Southern Indiana (pictured) These two beautifully restored Gilded Age beauties shine at Christmas. A grand scale touches every holiday activity, from Thanksgiving dinner under the West Baden Hotel’s huge domed atrium to an arts fair, breakfasts with Santa, strolling Dickens characters, caroling and a huge gingerbread house at the French Lick Resort. See reviews and ratings. (888) 936-9360; frenchlick.com

Big Cedar Lodge Ridgedale, Missouri Nestled among limestone cliffs 12 miles south of Branson, Big Cedar presents a luxe Ozark Christmas getaway. Horse-drawn wagons rumble by lakeside cabins wearing full-on holiday decor. Look for the huge gingerbread house and elves that read bedtime stories. See reviews and ratings. (800) 225-6343; bigcedar.com

Amazing light displays

Wildlights at Columbus Zoo Columbus, Ohio More than 3 million LED lights shine at the home of animal expert Jack Hanna (November 17, 2014–January 4, 2015). Every half hour, a choreographed display of lights and music bursts over Conservation Lake. Admission charged. (800) 666-5397; columbuszoo.org

National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows Belleville, Illinois Twinkling with more than 1 million lights, the breathtaking displays just east of St. Louis beautifully reveal the story of Christ’s birth, a lovely alternative to fun but secular holiday displays. Free. (618) 397-6700; wayoflights.org

Bentleyville Duluth Fifteen fire pits and free hot chocolate warm visitors in Bayfront Park, where regional landmarks shine in twinkle lights. It started as one guy’s home display; now, it’s a community’s must-see. Free. (218) 740-3535; bentleyvilleusa.org

Winter Wonderland East Peoria, Illinois  Ooh and aah at the animated displays in the Winter Wonderland: dinos! Star Wars! Ski jumpers! and more. Admission charged. (800) 747-0302; peoria.org

(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® November/December 2012.)

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