From coast to coast, from Thanksgiving through New Years, America is awash in holiday celebrations. There are parades and pageants, concerts and markets, Christmas light drive-thrus, festivals and even themed sporting events. There is no way to encompass a “best” list, certainly not a short one. I have read dozens of such lists, and they’re all completely different from one another. So, here is a list I have made of some great things to see around America at Christmastime that don’t always get a lot of national press:
Clackamas County Christmas Tree Harvest
November & December
Over one hundred million natural Christmas trees are grown, harvested and sold around the world every year; and all of those miniature fir, pine and spruce trees have to come from somewhere. The United States produces over thirty-five million Christmas trees per year, and over seven million of those come from Oregon, the most of any state. Oregon, at the heart of the Pacific Northwest, is one of the most heavily forested states in America. It is therefore natural that Oregon produces some of the largest crops of top-quality Christmas trees anywhere. In particular, Clackamas County is famous for its Christmas tree farms, with nearly three million trees produced in this county alone every year.
At the heart of Clackamas County’s Christmas tree harvest is the small town of Estacada. Because of its central importance to Clackamas County, and therefore to Oregon’s Christmas tree industry, Estacada considers itself to be the Christmas Tree Capital of the World, a claim with reasonable merit. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the northwest descend on this tiny town every December to pick and cut down their own perfect Christmas tree. Among the town’s major farms, in alphabetical order, are Bill’s Tree Farm, Buckner Farms, Frosty Forest Farm, Magill Farms, Mills Farm, Park Forest Products and Randall Farm.
Great Dickens Christmas Fair
San Francisco, California
November 17-December 23, 2018
Web: https://dickensfair.com (official website)
Every year, in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the San Francisco Cow Palace Exhibition Hall in San Francisco is transformed into a 19th-century London neighborhood, where entertainers and guests frolick in Victorian holiday splendor. Now over three decades old, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair is reminiscent of a typical Renaissance Festival with a Victorian holiday twist. In fact, some of the merchants and entertainers work the Renaissance Festival circuit in summers. Victorian-style stores overflow with toys and gifts of all sorts, while Victorian-style restaurants and pubs overflow with 19th century English delicacies.
The highlight of the fair is the variety of holiday entertainment, from dance performances to wandering entertainers in costume. Among the annual highlights is the ongoing Dickensian Christmas party held at Fezziwig’s Warehouse. There is also the Sugarplum Playhouse, where children can hobnob with a European-style Father Christmas. Meanwhile the streets of the fair are packed with the characters of such popular Dicken’s stories as Oliver Twist and a Christmas Carol, not to mention an abundance of Christmas wassailers strolling around.
Natchitoches Christmas Festival
December 6-15 (Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays)
Web: www.natchitocheschristmas.com (official website)
The Natchitoches Christmas Festival is one of the oldest and largest traditional Christmas celebrations in the American south. Founded by French traders in the early 18th century, Natchitoches was possibly the first place Christmas was ever celebrated west of the Mississippi River. The Natchitoches Christmas Festival as it is now known can unofficially be traced back to 1926. In that year, Max Burgdof, the town’s electrician, convinced the community to string up festive lights in the town for the holidays. The lights were a huge success, and from that year on became an annual part of Natchitoches’ holiday celebrations.
In subsequent decades, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival became the most popular holiday party of its kind in the south. The fame of this small town’s festival, which was way out of proportion to the size of the local population, drew visitors in from hundreds of miles in all directions. Over the years it grew to epic proportions, adding fireworks, parades, home tours, beauty pageants and college football games (though not all of these are still ongoing). The festival achieved additional fame after appearing in numerous movies, most notably Steel Magnolias.
Boar’s Head & Yule Log Festival
December 29-30, 2018
Web: https://cincinnaticathedral.com/boars-head (official website)
The traditions of the Boar’s Head Feast and the Yule Log both date back many centuries, and celebrations of both can be found around the world. However, in the United States, no place celebrates the Boar’s Head and the Yule Log like the congregation of Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is one of the longest running Boar’s Head feasts in the New World. Boar’s Head Festivals can be traced back to England in 1340. In 1940, Reverend Nelson Burroughs, rector of the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, organized a Boar’s Head feast to celebrate that tradition’s 600th birthday. It has since become a major local celebration of the holiday season in Ohio.
Since the beginning of the festival in the 1940s, authenticity has been an absolute must. Everything from the costumes and decorations to the food and the music must evoke 14th century England, at least as far as possible. There are over a hundred and fifty performers in full renaissance regalia; live entertainment featuring medieval music; homemade dishes made from century-old recipes; and a boar’s head (actually a hog’s head) fully prepared in grand Middle Ages style. All of it is set in the soaring, magnificent halls of the Christ Church Cathedral.
Dive for the Cross
Tarpon Springs, Florida
January 6, 2019
The Dive for the Cross is one of the most important festivals of the holiday season for Orthodox Christians in America. In 2006, which marked the 100th anniversary of the Dive, the Patriarch of Constantinople, leader of the world’s 200 million Orthodox Christians, personally presided over this annual Epiphany celebration. In the late 19th century, Tarpon Springs attracted an influx of Greek immigrants to dive for the area’s wealth of sponges. They brought with them their sponge diving skills and their religion, establishing what became one of the largest Greek immigrant communities in the United States.
Epiphany is a major part of the holidays in the Greek Orthodox Church, and this was especially true of the Greek immigrants in Tarpon Springs. In 1907 the Dive for the Cross tradition was established to celebrate the last day of Christmas. The centerpiece event of America’s preeminent Epiphany festival, it features a ceremony in which a wooden cross is tossed into the Spring Bayou. Afterwards, a small horde of teenage boys jump in after it. The one who retrieves it receives a special blessing from the Orthodox Church, usually bestowed by either the Metropolitan of Atlanta or the Archbishop of America. It is considered an extraordinarily auspicious honor.