Best Places to Celebrate | Midwest Living

Best Places to Celebrate

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

    Macy’s State Street Chicago (pictured) The former Marshall Field’s store still shines with holiday magic, complete with trumpets mounted on the building, themed holiday windows that tell a story and the towering Christmas tree in the Walnut Room, where families decked in finery gather for classy comfort foods.

    Meadow Brook Hall Holiday Walk Rochester, Michigan A Currier and Ives-style display enthralls Detroiters who make the 30-mile drive to gawk at the opulence in this 110-room home. Every inch seems to be garlanded, baubled and illuminated, all of it a backdrop to teas and progressive dinners. 

  • 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.  

    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.

  • Photo courtesy of Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

    Incredible spectacles

    Branson, Missouri (pictured) Part glitz, part Bible Belt sensibilities and all Ozark hospitality, Branson shines at Christmastime. Millions of twinkle lights deck Silver Dollar City, stunning Biblical shows captivate viewers at the Sight and Sound Theatre, and Christmas-theme performances line the Strip like garland.

    Christmas at Luther College Decorah, Iowa Traditional carols radiate ethereal beauty when 600 singers and more than 100 musicians showcase their considerable gifts. Decorah (150 miles southeast of the Twin Cities) makes a postcard-cute setting for a weekend getaway.


  • Photo Courtesy of South Dakota Tourism.

    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 more than 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.

    Candlelight Walk Medina, Ohio The home of Root Candles burns bright the weekend before Thanksgiving when more than 1,750 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.

    Lucia Nights Bishop Hill, Illinois In an old blacksmith shop, a simple carol sung in Swedish tugs at heartstrings during this annual celebration, 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. 

  • 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.

    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. 

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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. Tickets go on sale November 1.

    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.

    Fort Robinson Annual Historical Christmas Dinner Crawford, Nebraska Tickets for the popular feast, which celebrates a year when Fort Robinson was an active post, sells out fast. But this excellent state park in Nebraska’s panhandle rewards the 200 ticket holders with hospitality, history and plenty of good family-style food. 

  • Photo Courtesy of the Osthoff Resort.

    Resorts that do it right

    The Osthoff Resort Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (pictured) A 10-day Old World Christmas Market, cookie and ornament decorating workshops, brunch with St. Nicholas and hayrides with caroling combine to create a perfect living Christmas card (72 miles northeast of Madison).

    Great Wolf Lodge Five Midwest locations From late November to early January, 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

  • Photo Courtesy of French Lick Resort.

    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 and caroling.

    Big Cedar Lodge Ridgedale, Missouri Nestled among limestone cliffs 12 miles south of Branson, Big Cedar presents a luxe Ozark Christmas getaway. Lakeside cabins wear full-on holiday decor. Look for the huge gingerbread house and elves that read bedtime stories.

  • Photo Courtesy of the Columbus Zoo.

    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 20, 2015–January 3, 2016). Every half hour, a choreographed display of lights and music bursts over Conservation Lake. Admission charged.

    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.

    Bentleyville Duluth More than 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.

    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.

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

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