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A trip can brighten the holidays!

The Ghost of Christmas Past in Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol was a scary visage of lost opportunity for Ebenezer Scrooge. However, groups can have much happier experiences during the holidays exploring Christmases past at festivals and destinations around the country.

“People just really enjoy stepping back in time,” said Cindy Moon with the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce in the heart of California’s Gold Rush country, where the city’s Victorian Christmas will be held for the 32nd year in December. “It’s a real neat time.

Nevada City in California’s Gold Rush country relives a Victorian holiday with horse-draw carriage rides and costumed townspeople.

“People dress in Victorian costumes, chestnuts are roasting down in the plaza, and carolers entertain,” she said. “Vendors sell handcrafted items on Broad Street, and there are lots of food vendors. We have horse-and-carriage rides.”

Nevada City’s downtown streets are closed to vehicles, allowing festival-goers to enjoy the sights and sounds amid the town’s historic downtown architecture.
(800) 655-NJOY (6569)

Golden Christmas

Another town with a rich gold-mining heritage is Dahlonega, Ga., whose Old Fashioned Christmas Celebration runs most of December around the downtown square.

“The entire historic square is lit. It is a warm, welcoming scene. We are trying to re-create that down-home feel,” said Stephen Smith, tourism director for the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have events throughout the month in the gazebo in front of the visitors center on the downtown square. All the storefronts are decorated, and everything opens onto the square, which heightens the festiveness.

“We always have a down-home parade with lots of cars and floats. It’s really a fun, American time,” said Smith.
(706) 864-3513

Moving displays

They get animated about Christmas in Canton, Miss., during the annual Victorian Christmas Festival.

“We have what we call animation museums,” said Jo Ann Gordon, director of the Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are more than 135 life-size, moving figures in three museums.

“The first depicts the history and heritage of Canton and is filled with the early days of Canton. The second museum is dedicated to the film industry, and the third is whimsical, really for children, but adults love it just as much. It’s just magical.”

Downtown buildings in Canton, Miss., are trimmed in lights druing the town’s Victorian Christmas Festival.

The museums began 14 years ago with 22 antique window decorations and displays and have grown in size and popularity.

The entire downtown is decked out in more than 200,000 lights, including lights that outline the downtown buildings. “We have light displays all over town,” said Gordon. “That is why we are called the City of Lights.”

Many of the festivities take place around the courthouse square, where the light displays include a carousel, a miniature train and a miniature fire truck.

“It’s a month long event,” said Gordon. “It begins the Friday after Thanksgiving and runs through Dec. 23. On the second Friday night, we have Sip and Cider. All the stores do a recipe for apple cider, and there is judging. It has become a big deal.”

Gordon said weeknights are reserved for groups. “It’s like personal tours and a private evening,” she said. “It works out beautifully for them; they are not fighting with the crowds. We will do everything for them, make all the arrangements.”

Gordon said the personal service includes guided tours of the animation museums. “It’s a very personable tour,” she said. “It’s more fun to tell the stories.”

She said the local stores will stay open if a group requests shopping, and the CVB can make dinner arrangements, including a catered dinner in a private home.
(800) 844-3369

Dutch Colonial

In New Castle, Del., the local historical society goes all out for Christmas in two of the historic homes it operates, providing a glimpse into 17th- and 18th-century holiday festivities.

“At Christmas, the 1738 Amstel House, which had been a governor’s house, has several rooms decorated,” said Bruce Dalleo, education coordinator for the New Castle Historical Society. “One is decorated for a New Year’s party, another for a Christmas dinner, about the 1785 timeframe, right after the Revolution when the governor was living in the house.

“In the dining room, there is very beautiful rose medallion Chinese export porcelain, which was very revered in late-18th-century America. The dinner is laid out; it was usually oysters, small birds and a dessert of plum pudding.

The holiday decorations at the Amstel House in New Castle, Del., represent the late 1700s when the state’s governor lived there.

“It is decorated with crabapples and lady apples around them, which was a typical Georgian way to show a pretty piece in the middle of the table. You were expected to pull off the apples,” Dalleo said.

In the Dutch House, which was a 1600s artisan home, the decorations celebrate St. Nicholas Eve.

“The children would leave hay and apples in their klumpen, or wooden shoes, and St. Nicholas [would] take them and leave goodies, sweets usually, and small presents,” said Dalleo.

“We talk about the ways Dutch families in New Netherlands would have celebrated the holidays in December.”
(302) 322-2794

Steeped in tradition

Christmas was a special time at the massive Biltmore mansion George W. Vanderbilt constructed in the late 1800s in the western North Carolina mountains near Asheville.

“It was opened on Christmas Eve 1895, so it is very much steeped in the Christmas tradition,” said Hanna Parks of the Biltmore Estate’s special projects department. “We don’t really know how the house was decorated then, but we have some records, and we try to re-create some of that.

“Each year we have a theme. This year it is ‘Gilded Age Christmas.’ The staff works off of that theme.”

Parks said every one of the more than 100 rooms that are open to the public are decorated for the season, with 50 trees ranging in height from 4 feet to 34 feet located throughout the house.

“We use Frasier firs as fresh cuts because of the fragrance,” she said. “There are German blown-glass ornaments, garlands, and wreaths with ribbons and bows.”

Late 19th-century holiday decoration in the mansions of the wealthy are on display at Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., above, and Breakers in Newport, R.I., below.

Period kissing balls of white pine or Frasier fir hang from archways and chandeliers.

A great time to get a feel for what the Biltmore House would have looked like in the late 19th century is during Candlelight Christmas Evenings, when the house is lit only by light from fireplaces and candles. It is the only time the house is open in the evenings.

Summer cottages at Christmas

Although the mansions in Newport, R.I., were never decorated for Christmas — they were summer “cottages” of the very wealthy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — three of the historic houses are dressed up for the season each year.

“We try to do decorations in the spirit of what would have been done at that time, how people living in these houses would have decorated their winter houses,” said Andrea Carneiro, communications manager for the Preservation Society of Newport County.

“We use the same kinds of things: period-type decorations.”

The Breakers, the Elms and Marble House will be decked out in holiday finery from Nov. 20 to Jan. 3.

“Our signature is the beautiful evergreens — wreaths and trees — which is one of the things that was very prominent then,” said Carneiro. “There are multiple trees in various rooms in each of the houses. There are white lights in the windows, a signature of Christmas in Newport. It’s what they would have done in that period.”

Carneiro said that although poinsettias were not a feature of Victorian decorations, the houses are filled with thousands of the holiday plants, along with a large number of lilies and palms.

“We have a 20-foot poinsettia tree created with several hundred on a stand,” she said. “We have wrapped presents under the trees. We try to make the houses warm and inviting and make it look like they are celebrating Christmas.

“Christmas is a wonderful time and a very popular time with groups. You see the houses very differently when they are filled with these beautiful evergreens and red and white poinsettias. The plants give a whole different atmosphere.”