Catch the Holiday Spirit on Your
In our great American melting pot, no matter what your religion, culture or creed, the holidays are a magical time. Not only do America’s public lands offer Tranquil Winter Escapes—perhaps to forage for your own holiday mistletoe or cut your own Christmas tree—but you can also enjoy a merry mosaic of holiday festivities that celebrate the history and variety of the cultural traditions of America.
National Wildlife Refuges throughout the country offer a variety of holly, jolly experiences for all to enjoy. And try one of the very merry ideas on our list or—wherever you live—you can probably find holiday traditions, activities and events on federal public lands near you.
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The Tumacácori National Historical Park hosts “La Fiesta de Tumacácori” every year during the first full weekend of December in recognition and celebration of the many cultures associated with the site. The fiesta features around 50 food and craft booths, continuous live entertainment and children's activities each day. On all December weekends, artisans demonstrate traditions like tortilla and paper flower making, O'odham basket weaving or leather and iron working. Experience Tumacácori under the light of a full moon during Full Moon Nights and read more in our Spotlight article.
In Ganado, on the opposite (northeast) corner of the state, the Friends of Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site celebrate this meeting ground of two cultures during the annual Luminaria Night. The park will place more than 700 luminaries on the grounds for this special event.
The Caroling in the Caverns program at Blanchard Springs is one of the most surreal—yet unique and memorable—ways to ring in the holiday cheer. The acoustics of the semi-dark, underground caverns lend to the incredible vocals and music of area folk musicians. You can also book a tour for the cave throughout the year.
In 1925, Charles E. Lee of Sanger, California, started a holiday tradition that continues every December—a Christmas program set beneath “the other national Christmas tree” known as the General Grant Tree. Mr. Lee, then secretary of the Sanger Chamber of Commerce, and Mr. R.J. Senior, president of the Chamber, conceived the idea of an annual ceremony. Mr. Lee wrote to President Calvin Coolidge, who designated the General Grant as the Nation's Christmas Tree on April 28, 1926. The Sanger Chamber of Commerce continues to sponsor the annual Christmas "Trek to the Tree" on the second Sunday of December.
Witness the joys, pleasures and pastimes of the 1840s when you visit this isolated trading post for the annual holiday celebration. The spirit of the old west comes alive during the holiday season with wagon rides, games, toy making and other festivities set right in the midst of Bent’s Old Fort—an adobe fur trading post on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. The event features candlelight tours of the fort. Check the park’s schedule of events or phone (719) 383-5026.
Want to participate in the magical sights and sounds around our nation’s capital? Join the live webcast of the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at thenationaltree.org on December 6. Even if you didn’t win one of the highly-prized tickets to the event, you can see the National Christmas Tree and visit Santa’s Workshop located at the Ellipse between the National Mall and the White House. You can also see another famous Christmas tree at the U.S. Capitol building, trimmed and decorated after its trip across the country. Read more about the Capitol Christmas Tree festivities.
De Soto National Memorial’s Winter Luminary is a unique and traditional experience. For one night each holiday season, the park lights its trails with thousands of luminaries. You'll encounter living historians as they re-enact the first European holiday in the new world at De Soto’s winter encampment in circa 1539 and learn how Native American and Spanish explorers celebrated in the winter season. Enjoy the night out and listen to classical and traditional music provided by local artists including Native American flute, orchestra and violin. Visit the park’s schedule of events or social media for details.
In the late 1800s, W.T. Chesser and his family settled a small island on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp—carving out a life in the often harsh conditions. Today, you can learn about the Chesser family and the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge’s more than 400,000 acres of freshwater swamp. Celebrate Christmas on Chesser Island with a hayride, luminaries, refreshments, caroling and live music. Discover the region's traditions as you tour a swamp homestead decorated with traditional homemade decorations. Stay warm by the bonfire while enjoying homemade cookies and cider.
Get “A Taste of Christmas Past” at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Feast on old time delectable favorites of Christmas cookies, hot chocolate, and Twelfth Night Cake, create special gifts for loved ones, and celebrate the holidays with stories and crafts. Check the park’s schedule of events.
What could be more American than brilliant multitudes of Christmas lights? Redman Creek Recreation Area campground at Wapapello Lake hosts the annual “Festival of Lights Auto Tour.” You can help decorate the campsites or just drive through and enjoy the festive decorations. Check the Wappapello Lake Events page for more details
At Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site you can join cowboys and cattlemen for a Victorian Holiday Open House. The elegantly decorated Kohrs family ranch house will reflect the holiday style of the Victorian-era.
Visit Scotts Bluff National Monument and enjoy an old-fashioned annual Christmas on the Prairie. Rangers will be in period dress as they teach visitors how to make five different ornaments and talk about life in the early days. There will also be live music and refreshments. Across the state in Beatrice at the Homestead National Monument of America, celebrate the winter traditions of people who lived on the Great Plains during the homesteading era with events like the “Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures” or the “Old Fashioned Christmas.” At the Freeman School, celebrate the anniversary of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” which homesteading children read, create ornaments from hedge apples and help decorate the school. Check the park’s schedule of events for more details.
The holiday-decorated 1790 historic Foster Armstrong House within Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is open for Old Fashioned Holiday Weekends with docent-led candlelight tours, book and craft sales. About 22 miles downriver at Millbrook Village, you can see Victorian-decorated village homes, join costumed guides, enjoy cooking demonstrations, children can try Victorian Christmas crafts, toys and games, and you may even hear carol-singing and Christmas reminiscences in the village church led by costumed members of the Millbrook Village Society.
Shopping is an American tradition, and if you’ve come to New York City for holiday shopping, then what better way to celebrate than by learning about the history of shopping? At Lower East Side Tenement Museum the Shop Life exhibit explores how generations of immigrant entrepreneurs—German saloon keepers, a kosher butcher, a Depression-era auctioneer—brought their dreams for economic success to 97 Orchard Street's basement storefronts.Sagamore Hill National Historic Site
Enjoy Christmas with the Roosevelts at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. Activities include holiday music performed on a harp and flute by Musica Dolce at the park's Old Orchard Museum and "Theodore Roosevelt," as portrayed by James Foote, will share his reminiscences of how the Roosevelts celebrated Christmas, both at Sagamore Hill and in the White House. Children will have an opportunity to work with a park ranger to make holiday crafts, and everyone is welcome to partake of complimentary hot cider and hot chocolate from the Friends of Sagamore Hill. Check the park’s schedule of events (and note that the house remains closed while it undergoes renovations).Saint Paul's Church National Historic Site
What American tradition do we hold more dear than our Bill of Rights? In 1733, Saint Paul's Church played a role in raising issues about our freedoms of religion and of the press. Each year, a special program marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791. During the holiday season, the church also presents several holiday music programs. Join a guided tour, enjoy an organ concert, attend an outdoor music festival, participate in a living history program, go on a cemetery tour or just enjoy a quiet walk on the grounds.
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site decorates the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s home in simple Sandburg style with poinsettias and a traditionally decorated Christmas tree for the entire month of December through January 6. The free and festive Christmas at Connemara event includes musicians and storytellers, hot cider and cookies. This celebration honors Carl Sandburg and his family holiday tradition of music.Great Smoky Mountains National Park
At Great Smoky Mountains National Park join the “Holiday Homecoming,” an old-fashioned Christmas celebration with traditional music, holiday crafts, cider and cookies. Across the state line at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, celebrate the Festival of Christmas Past with old-time music, harp singing, storytelling and reminiscing, craft demonstrations such as weaving, spinning, quilting, basket making, historic toys and games and children's activities.
Visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park for a real Christmas adventure! The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad offers several holiday themed railroad trips including a trip to Peninsula to choose your Christmas tree, Mr. Jingeling's Holiday Express, and the Polar Express. Download a complete Winter Schedule from the park website. Read our Spotlight article on Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Heceta Head Lighthouse may arguably be the most photographed spot along the Oregon coast. The nearby lightkeeper’s home is managed as a bed and breakfast through an arrangement with the Siuslaw National Forest, and during the annual Victorian Christmas Open House, is open to the public for four evenings. Visitors will enjoy the beautifully decorated Keeper’s House, each evening musicians will perform holiday favorites, local sponsors provide warm drinks and goodies, and Santa Claus will make a special appearance. Read more about this area in our Spotlight article.
Touro Synagogue, dedicated in 1763, is the oldest synagogue and most historically significant Jewish building in the United States. The congregation was founded in 1658 by the descendants of Jewish families who fled the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal and who themselves left the Caribbean seeking the greater religious tolerance that Rhode Island offered. On Sunday—the second night of Hanukkah—the synagogue offers a community candle lighting celebration. In addition to lighting the menorah, there will be food (latkes), entertainment and more. The synagogue will also participate in the month long community wide Christmas in Newport celebration. The synagogue offers regular tours every Sunday throughout the winter and early spring.
Join Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park for a holiday party at historic Cravens House on Lookout Mountain and learn how people celebrated the holidays during the American Civil War.
See also the North Carolina listing for Great Smoky Mountains National Park
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park presents the Hispanic folk play Los Pastores (The Shepherds) at Mission San Jose. The play depicts the pastores (shepherds') journey to honor the Christ Child and the obstacles Lucifer puts before them. Its dramatic conclusion brings a round of cheers from the audience when the Archangel Michael conquers the devil. Check the park’s schedule of events.
Join Booker T Washington National Monument for the annual Old Virginia Christmas Event. Join on a lantern guided tour led by costumed re-enactors who will examine concerns and dreams of slaves and plantation owners during the Christmas of 1862. Booker T Washington was born here in 1856, and you can read some of his Christmas memories on the park’s website. Check the park’s schedule of events.
Take a lantern-lit journey with a park ranger through a night at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site! Peak into the past through live theater with vignettes performed by costumed interpreters, and learn about your urban national park then and now. Walk from scene to scene through the fort buildings enjoying hot cider with the performers.
Take an hour-long horse-drawn winter sleigh ride with a bonus: a close-up view of the refuge’s great elk herds. Double H Bar, Inc. offers the sleigh rides daily from mid-December through the end of March or early April (closed on Christmas day). Purchase tickets at the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Centers.