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Holidays: Once a year trips

Twinkling lights gleam in the background as carolers pass out steaming mugs of hot chocolate to passengers preparing to embark on a Polar Express adventure. Although this scene has been played out in many holiday movies, it’s also played out in real life each year as cities around the globe offer groups iconic holiday experiences.

Although a well-sung Christmas carol or a bustling market filled with festive treasures can help put you in the holiday spirit, it’s oftentimes the company you keep and the people you meet that makes the experience truly memorable. For a yuletide retreat you’ll remember for years to come, check out one of these iconic holiday events that welcome groups with open arms, and a warm cup of hot chocolate if you’re lucky.

Christmas in the Mansions
Nashville, Tennessee
Over the holidays, Nashville shines with Southern charm and hospitality. Around this time of year, the city seems to step back through history to a time when the sounds of jingle bells and Christmas carols were complemented by true Southern belles and presidentially decorated cannons.

Beyond the beautiful sounds from the city’s thousands of professional musicians lies an experience sure to warm the hearts of any size group. The mansions of Nashville invite guests into a world where Christmas tree decorating is an art form and Victorian holiday parties are celebrated as more than antiquated traditions. At Belmont Mansion, visitors can hear traditional carols beneath swags of garland at the 19th-century home of Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham. At Cheekwood, home of the family that founded Maxwell House Coffee, groups enjoy an afternoon tea before creating family decorations in Santa’s Workshop.

“It is always interesting to visit the Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson, during the holidays,” said Jenny Steuber, director of public relations for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The mansion is decorated exactly how it would have been during the time the Jacksons lived there. The Christmas décor is simple and tasteful, exemplifying the look of the times.”

Butchart Gardens

Victoria, British Columbia
From the 1st of December through the 6th of January, more than 10,000 colored bulbs light up the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, with tons of festive elements hidden in the gardens for groups to discover the magic of Christmas as they explore the grounds. Over the holidays the garden features an outdoor ice rink with skate rentals, nightly carolers, brass band and more.

“This year marks the 26th season of the Magic of Christmas season,” said Graham Bell, public relations director for The Butchart Gardens. “So now those who were toddlers and brought by the parents to see the wonder of the lights and decorations are now bringing their own children. ‘The Twelve Days’ of Christmas are dotted about the landscape providing children and adults the fun of putting the verses of the song to the correct order.”

As with other times of the year, during the Magic of Christmas season the garden offers groups a discounted rate along with the opportunity to choose set menus at reserved times.

Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
One of the top holiday markets in the world, Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem is a holiday treasure trove that showcases aisles of artisan gifts and crafts, live Christmas music, festive food and more. Modeled after the open-air markets that take place in Germany during the holiday season, Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem was established in 1993 to add another option to this town’s already-existing holiday celebration for people to experience the magic of Christmas in “the Christmas City.”

Along with festive tunes sung on street corners and an authentic German St. Nicholas, the event features aisles of handmade works by more than 100 of the nation’s finest artisans and delicious German and Austrian holiday favorites such as bratwurst, German-roasted almonds and strudel. Groups can even work with the town’s resident glass artists to blow their own glass ornaments, perfect for gift giving or the family’s Christmas tree.

“Each year there are more than 50 different holiday-themed events and attractions that take place here during the Christmas season,” said Terry Blackman, group tour and hospitality specialist for ArtsQuest. “In addition to Christkindlmarkt, there’s shopping on historic Main Street, old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage rides, walking tours led by guides dressed in 18th-century attire and more. One of the best ways to see all of the sights and attractions is to take the Bethlehem by Night bus tour, which travels throughout the city to catch glimpses of the famous ‘Star of Bethlehem’ atop South Mountain.”

Kristy Alpert

Kristy Alpert has traversed more than 50 countries in her quest to uncover stories for her outlets in Food & Wine, Men's Health, Group Travel Leader, American Way, and more. When she's not on the road, you can find her teaching yoga and exploring around her new home in Germany with her husband and her Boston Terrier, Tobias.