Before Santa and his magical reindeer travel the world to spread joy and presents, be sure to stop off at these Wisconsin communities to experience the Christmas spirit in all its glory.
It’s the most wonderful time of year wherever you are, but Christmas in Wisconsin hits just a bit differently. Maybe it’s the warmth of being with family and friends while the cold wind howls outside. Maybe it’s the delicious food and drink options that are offered in every town, village and city. Whatever the reason, we know your Christmas will be extra merry and bright when you celebrate in these Wisconsin communities.
Light up Your Life in Lake Geneva
Each year, visitors from all over the Midwest and beyond head to Lake Geneva, an idyllic destination in southern Wisconsin that’s picturesque all year long. There’s plenty of fun to be had, no matter what time year you visit, although the Christmas season is especially magical.
When the snow falls, Lake Geneva transforms from a lakeside playground to a winter wonderland. Visitors trade in their bathing suits and boats for downhill and cross-country skis, snowshoes and parkas so they can spend fun-filled days flying down the slopes at Wilmot Mountain or the Mountain Top at Grand Geneva. Maybe they even take in the scenery while exploring Big Foot Beach Park or White River County Park.
The Christmas spirit is alive and well at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa. The AAA Four Diamond resort flips the switch on more than 2 million lights Nov. 20 with the annual Illumination Ceremony and fireworks display, which is open to both the public and resort guests. Everyone is welcome to stroll through the resort’s Gingerbread House Walk and enjoy holiday cookies and hot apple cider. The fun begins at 4:30 p.m. with photos with Santa in the Evergreen Ballroom, followed by a countdown to the illumination around the outdoor Christmas tree.
Christmas in Lake Geneva proper officially kicks off on Dec. 3 during the 47th Annual Lake Geneva Electric Christmas Parade. This joyful tradition features colorful, light-filled floats moving down Broad and Main streets in the heart of Lake Geneva’s downtown. This year’s theme, the Twelve Days of Christmas, is sure to ignite the imaginations of children of all ages as they take in the parade and decorations that sparkle on the city’s many restaurants, shops and taverns. Before the parade, head to Woods School, N2575 Snake Road, for the Christmas in the Woods Craft Fair. More than 60 crafters and vendors are on-hand to sell their wares at the longest-running craft fair in Lake Geneva.
Elkhorn, a Bona Fide Christmas Card Town
Known as the Christmas Card Town, Elkhorn comes by its nickname honestly.
In 1952, a television series called “The March of Time” featured Elkhorn in an episode about Christmas in small-town America. This, in turn, inspired the Ford Motor Co. to commission Cecile Johnson, a New York artist, to paint a series of watercolor paintings of the town, which were used as the artwork for Christmas cards distributed nationwide. A tradition was born and now, each Christmas, a local artist paints a new image for the beloved Elkhorn Christmas card.
During the holiday season, the streets of Elkhorn become the living embodiment of the cards it is known for. The halls are officially decked on Dec. 2 this year with the Annual Tree Lighting. Citizens and visitors alike gather at the Walworth County Fairgrounds to sip hot cocoa and sing carols while they wait for Santa to arrive. When the jolly North Pole ambassador arrives and flips the switch, Christmas in Elkhorn is officially underway.
Immediately following the tree lighting is Let It Glow, a drive-through holiday light festival that’s also held on the fairgrounds and runs until Dec. 5. But first, on Saturday, Dec. 4, hungry visitors will want to head to First Congregational Church for the Annual Holiday Cookie Sale, then head downtown for the 41st Annual Christmas Card Town Parade, which features music, animals, floats and, of course, Santa himself.
Celebrate in Little Switzerland
Thanks to New Glarus it’s possible to have a Swiss Christmas without using your passport. Known as Little Switzerland because of its well-preserved immigrant heritage, this delightful Wisconsin village is so charming that it feels like celebrating Christmas in a snow globe.
The Swiss are known for their clockwork efficiency, and New Glarus is no different. This community gets the holiday season started early with their Holiday Open Houses-Downtown Shops event, held in mid-November. The specials and gift ideas offered on this night always bring in the shoppers, but window shoppers will also be rewarded by the beautifully decorated downtown that sets the tone of the season.
Christmas gets underway in earnest on Dec. 1 with two beloved local traditions, starting with the Holiday Tree Lighting at the historic New Glarus Depot. Visitors and residents gather to watch the tree’s lights come to life as alphorns play and a chorus sings. The second event, Adventsfenster, is a monthlong affair that turns New Glarus into a living Advent calendar. Each night until Dec. 24, one window of a local building is unveiled to reveal a dazzling decorative display to the public.
From Dec. 2 to 4, the second annual Christkindli Market sets up shop. This outdoor Christmas market transforms New Glarus’ downtown into Swissmas Village, with tiny chalets hosting vendors selling locally sourced gifts, decorations and food. Shoppers can enjoy live music and horse-drawn sleigh rides while the kids say hello to Santa.
A trip to New Glarus is a good idea any time of year, but a visit during Christmas just might become a beloved new family tradition.
Have a Jolly Time in Janesville
Known as “Wisconsin’s Great Outside,” Janesville doesn’t disappoint in the colder months. The beautiful parks and trails are still there for hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, but the historic downtown is the place you’ll want to be during Christmastime.
The jewel in the city’s Christmas crown is Jolly Jingle, a fun family gathering held on the first weekend of December. The weekend gets underway with a Holiday Tree Show at the Rock County Historical Society, on Jackson Street, where more than 100 decorated Christmas trees, festooned with thousands of lights, will get even the grinchiest member of the family into a holiday state of mind. The festive fun continues with a luminaria walk through the streets of downtown. Don’t forget to pop into the various small businesses for holiday shopping, food and drink.
The Holiday Light Show, held at the Rotary Botanical Gardens, promises to be a stunning affair, featuring more than a million sparkling lights and displays. Kids love the face painting, jingle bell hunt and other fun activities in the Town Square, and the entire family has a chance to show off their twirls and triple salchows during the family skate at the Janesville Ice Arena. The day closes on a high note with the official lighting of the Holiday Tree at Marvin Roth Pavilion, a fireworks display at Library Park and a Jingle Bell Dance Party from the JP Cullen Stage.
The fun continues throughout the weekend, starting bright and early Saturday with an interactive Polar Express Story Walk, where families can take a stroll, read excerpts from the beloved storybook and take photos of story-related displays along the way. And speaking of photos, don’t forget to visit the various holiday selfie stations that are scattered throughout downtown Janesville. Santa makes his presence known, along with Mrs. Claus. The couple pay a visit to the Hedberg Public Library on the morning of Dec. 3 before Santa gets himself in shape for a family skate at the ice arena and a family swim at the YMCA of Northern Rock County. The fun-filled Saturday culminates at 6 p.m. with the Holiday Lighted Parade, a cherished Janesville holiday tradition with lighted floats, marching bands and, of course, Santa Claus himself.
Live theater is also part of the Janesville Jolly Jingle experience as Janesville Performing Arts Center presents “Elf: the Musical,” a hilarious elf-out-of-North-Pole comedy based on the popular film. It’s an evening that only a cotton-headed ninny muggins would want to miss, as the cast will surely spread Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear.
Let Beloit Brighten Your Holiday
Not long ago, Beloit was considered one of Wisconsin’s best-kept secrets. Now, it seems, the secret is out and the town known as the “Gateway to Wisconsin” is a popular destination for anyone looking for good food and fun.
Christmas officially comes to town on the Friday following Thanksgiving. The Grand Lighted Holiday Parade, hosted by the Downtown Beloit Association, celebrates its 30th anniverary of festive fun this year. Thousands of residents and visitors gather to watch the decorative floats, sip free hot chocolate and take photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus. The event gets underway at 5 p.m. with live music at First National Bank Plaza. Santa arrives at 6 p.m. to light the tree, and then the parade begins. Santa is also available for photos and gift requests at Walnut Creek Awards, 400 E. Grand Ave., starting at 7 p.m.
Another long-running Beloit Christmas tradition is Holidazzle, held this year on Friday, Dec. 2, from 5-9 p.m. More than 25 shops in Beloit’s downtown keep the doors open late, and they really put the “dazzle” in Holidazzle by completely decking the halls with holiday decor and amazing window displays. Santa is on hand to say hello and visit with the kids, and delicious treats, carolers and live music keep everyone’s inner Scrooge at bay. Participating stores also carry works by local artists, giving shoppers a chance to get something that’s one-of-a-kind for that loved one who has everything. And if all that wasn’t enough, a Christmas trolley is on hand to transport shoppers, both in body and spirit, through a Christmas paradise.