Searching for a fun place to celebrate the holidays? Look no further than these destinations.
It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when families, friends and communities come together to celebrate the season. Everywhere you look, stockings are being hung, trees are being lighted and floats are parading down the street with Santa Claus in tow. For a true taste of holiday magic, these seven destinations are worth the extra drive.
New Glarus, Wis.
This Wisconsin town, known as “America’s Little Switzerland,” is a year-round tourist destination, but New Glarus goes all out to welcome the Christmas season.
“New Glarus does winter well,” says Bekah Stauffacher, executive director of the New Glarus Chamber of Commerce. “The Swiss Alpine theme goes well with snow and cold.”
The village kicks off its celebrations earlier than most, with Holiday Open Houses taking place in mid-November. The quaint shops around downtown pull out all the stops, decorating their windows, offering discounts and displaying fabulous gift ideas to kickstart the shopping season.
The magic really begins with the start of December, as the community opens its New Glarus Adventsfenster – a life-sized Advent calendar. This annual tradition, brought to New Glarus by a recent Swiss immigrant, runs every night until Dec. 24. Each night, one window in a local building will be uncovered to reveal dazzling decorations. The 24 windows are scattered across town. A map is available online at swisstown.com.
On Dec. 4, Kris Kringle himself arrives with his elves for Crafts with Santa, at New Glarus Elementary School. The family event includes photos with the big guy and lots of crafts.
That evening, the community comes out for the annual Holiday Tree Lighting. Old-fashioned streetlights set the historic New Glarus Depot aglow as alphorns play and the tree just outside the depot comes aglow with colorful lights.
From Dec. 10 to Dec. 12, a brand-new Christkindli Market makes its debut downtown. The outdoor market boasts mini chalets where vendors sell Christmas decorations, food, beverages and a variety of gifts. Santa will be there to say hello while Christmas music keeps the festive mood alive.
“We’re pretty excited about it. It’s our first one,” says Stauffacher. “It’s going to be adorable.”
In between all the fun, on Dec. 11, the Swiss United Church of Christ hosts its annual Cookie Sale. This popular event features cookies of all shapes and sizes, including traditional Swiss varieties, all baked by the church congregation. This is a highly anticipated event, so plan ahead, as cookies go fast.
Downtown New Glarus stays aglow throughout the holiday season, so there’s never a bad time to visit the quaint stores and festive atmosphere.
For more information, visit swisstown.com.
The self-proclaimed “Swiss Cheese Capital of the U.S.” lights up its holiday season with its annual Christmas lights contest, T’was the Lights Before Christmas. Across town, residents and businesses compete to see who can present the most festive displays.
“We have secret judges who go around and score the different entries,” says Melissa Even, executive director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event. “We also offer a map for anyone who wants to drive around town and look at all of the different displays.”
The prize money is paid out in “Monroe Money,” an initiative to encourage residents and visitors to shop local. To sweeten the deal, the Monroe Chamber is holding a Monroe Money Cashout until Dec. 23, where shoppers using Monroe Money will receive an additional 20% to spend on their Christmas shopping. Monroe Money is available for purchase at the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and Industry office.
At the same time, the Main Street Monroe organization holds a series of events throughout December, including Main Street LIVE, a virtual shopping event where anyone can check off their shopping list while monitoring Main Street Monroe’s Facebook page. Think “home shopping TV” meets buy-local Christmas. The idea for Main Street LIVE came about in March 2020, just as the pandemic was starting to take hold.
“We continued (the Facebook Live events) last winter, even when the stores were open,” says Jordan Nordby, executive director of Main Street Monroe. “Stores have made around $100,000 shopping live through us.”
While plans for Main Street LIVE continue this year, Monroe’s merchants are fully open and look forward to welcoming customers inside their stores for even more holiday shopping specials.
Main Street Monroe’s annual Lighted Christmas Parade sets off Dec. 3 with floats, dancers and music. Santa arrives with the parade and meets with children to hear their gift requests. Following the parade, festivities continue on the south side of Monroe’s Historic Courthouse Square with live music and carolers.
On Dec. 10 and Dec. 11, St. Victor School holds its Evening Lights with Santa, a drive-thru light show featuring Santa and a live nativity. The event, which runs from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Green County Fairgrounds, combines many of the season’s magical events into a festive, family-friendly occasion. The event is free, but all donations support the event and the St. Victor elementary school in Monroe.
For more information, check mainstreetmonroe.org or monroechamber.org.
The holiday season is officially underway the day after Thanksgiving as the Festival of Lights parade floats through downtown Ottawa.
The parade coincides with the season-long Deck the Parks, an event that brings sponsors and volunteers together to decorate nine of Ottawa’s parks.
“Deck the Parks was something the city did last year because we couldn’t have a parade,” says Donna Reynolds, administrative assistant for the Ottawa Visitors Center. “It was very nicely done, so it’s become part of our celebrations.”
Visitors can expect a wide variety of decorative themes and characters in each park. Charlie Brown and his friends take over Ridgen Park, thanks to the Shoreline Boat Club, while Girl Scout Troop 1255 gives Turnberry Park a Nutcracker makeover. Visitors are free to wander through the park to enjoy the sights and take in plenty of holiday spirit.
Meanwhile, Ottawa’s Chris Kringle Market, an open-air, European-inspired market, comes to Jordan Block Park just after Thanksgiving and continues every weekend through Dec. 19. Over 40 vendors bring a wide variety of food, drinks and gifts. Santa stays at his house on the Jordan Block every Saturday and Sunday to visit with children and take gift requests. Look for the Christmas Around the World displays to learn about Christmas traditions in places like Germany, Spain, Russia, Scandinavia and England. Kids can collect stamps from each display for their very own passport book, made in the craft tent. The Chris Kringle Market runs each Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 19.
For more information, visit pickusottawail.com.
This city’s cheese is a favorite among visitors, but so is its A Bit of Yesteryear Christmas Parade, which brings the whole community together for a parade along with candy cane-theme drinks, games and family activities, and appearances by local nonprofit organizations that serve up food and fun. Small Business Saturday brings special promotions and savings at Shullsburg’s local merchants as they kick off the holiday shopping season.
On Dec. 8, visitors to downtown Shullsburg can celebrate Ladies Night Out from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Local shops are open late for browsing, and local bars and restaurants offer specials and unique drinks all night. A Ladies Night Bingo encourages each participant to fill out her bingo card at each successive stop. Those who complete a Bingo can enter to win a gift basket or gift card.
The gentlemen get their own special evening the following week with the first annual Beards and Brews.
“This is a new event, this year,” says Cassidy Reilly, Main Street Director for Advance Shullsburg. “We figured we needed something for the guys.”
Beards and Brews takes place Dec. 15, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., with local bars and restaurants offering specialty brews and cocktails made specially for male patrons. Following their own bingo cards, men can get their own special passport stamped for each brew they sample. Full passports earn a chance to win a gift basket or gift card.
For more information, visit experienceshullsburg.com.
Princeton’s holiday celebrations begin early with a Christmas Open House in November, during which time visitors can do some special window shopping and enjoy fun activities.
“Our businesses, especially our Main Street retailers, have a window display contest that they compete in,” says Jenica Cole, executive director of the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce and Princeton Tourism.
The city’s Christmas tree comes aglow on Dec. 3. Held in the park across from City Hall, the tree-lighting event includes treats and hot chocolate as participants wait for Santa and Mrs. Claus to arrive by trolley. Then, the annual Candy Cane Hunt follows at Soldiers and Sailors Park.
The festivities continue the next day, on Dec. 4, starting with Breakfast with Santa at Downtown Pub & Event Center. A 5K run, which starts and ends at the Bureau County Metro Center, begins at 11 a.m. The Main Street Christmas Parade commences at 1 p.m., and afterward the Bureau County Fairgrounds comes alive with a myriad of activities for the kids, including crafts, an obstacle course and delicious treats.
From Dec. 4 through Jan. 1, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., the Bureau County Fairgrounds are merry and bright with the Home for the Holidays Christmas Lights Drive-Thru, hosted by the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce and the Bureau County Fairgrounds. This is the grand debut for the event where local businesses and families sponsor stunning light displays, giving visitors a chance to celebrate the season from the warmth of their vehicles.
For more information, visit princetonchamber-il.com.
Don’t forget these other celebrations a little closer to home.
Lake Geneva Cruise Lines
Families and friends are invited onboard the Lake Geneva Santa Cruise for a special, child-friendly journey around Geneva Lake. The fun begins at Gage Marine, in Williams Bay, where Santa’s Christmas Tree Festival greets passengers. This themed tree display is decorated by local nonprofits. The cruise line’s boats are fully decked out for the holidays and a journey to Santa’s Hideaway. Along the way, passengers listen to stories of Santa’s summer adventures in Lake Geneva while enjoying dazzling light displays along the shoreline. Santa then appears onshore to shout hello and call out the name of each child passenger. Tours run Wednesday through Sunday until Dec. 30. For more information, visit santacruiselakegeneva.com.
For 32 years, the annual Festival of Lights has lit up the hills of Sinnissippi Park. The free, drive-thru event features more than 70 displays sponsored by local businesses and nonprofits. Rockford-based Comfort 1st Insulation is adding some special magic this year with a snow-making machine that adds some atmosphere.
Santa makes an appearance at the donation booth every weekend before Christmas.
Sinnissippi Park stays lit every weekend through Dec. 31, with extended hours starting Dec. 20. For more information, check out 4thandlights.com/festival-of-lights.