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The best holiday festivals in the South

Just because we don’t get a lot of snow down South doesn’t mean we don’t know how to celebrate the holidays. From over-the-top light displays to giant gingerbread houses, the South goes all out for the holidays. Get in the holiday spirit with dazzling holiday lights, hot cocoa and visits from Santa at these holiday festivals.
Click the arrows above to see the festivals 

Photo credit: Caleb Woods / Unsplash

Galaxy of Lights festival at the Huntsville Botanical Garden


The Galaxy of Lights festival at the Huntsville Botanical Garden offers a light show with over 200 light displays that visitors can drive or walk through. Expect to see Santa flying over a winter village and a twinkling icicle forest, along with other classic holiday scenes. This festive light show runs through New Year’s Eve. 

Bellingrath Gardens in Theodore, Alabama is celebrating 22 years of Magic Christmas in Lights. The light show features 15 holiday scenes and over three million lights across the 65-acre garden.

Photo credit: Huntsville Botanical Gardens Facebook

Gingerbread Lane Village


In Ocean City, Maryland, the Winterfest of Lights attracts hundreds of visitors each night. Grab a cup of hot chocolate before getting on one of the boardwalk trams that will take you through a twinkling trail of lights as Christmas music plays in the background.

Take a stroll through Gingerbread Lane at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. This year, chef and Gingerbread Lane creator Jon Lovitch will try to beat his own record by creating the world’s largest gingerbread village. Last year’s 678-square foot gingerbread village was “made from 270 pounds of gingerbread dough, 910 pounds of icing, 700 candy canes and 25 combined pounds of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg.” The festive village he creates this holiday season will be on display until January 7, 2018. 

Photo credit: Maryland Science Center

Gulfport Harbor Lights


At the third annual Gulfport Harbor Lights Winter Festival, take a walking tour of the show or ride aboard one of the heated trolleys to see the magical lights and sounds of the festival. Visitors can also take pictures with Santa or ride on Santa’s Kid’s master express train. 

From carriage rides to hayrides and carolers, Christmas in the Orchard at Fulmer’s Farmstead offers a unique family-friendly holiday experience. Cook s'mores over a fire pit while listening to holiday carolers or take a walk through the historical cabins on the property. Make sure to make a reservation if you plan on taking a ride on one of the horse-drawn carriages. 

Photo credit: Gulfport Harbor Lights Facebook

Candles and lights at Brookgreen Gardens

South Carolina

Lights before Christmas has been a holiday tradition at Riverbanks Zoo & Garden for the last 30 years. Nearly one million lights twinkle throughout the zoo as guests enjoy a visit from Santa and hot cocoa around the Jingle Bell Bonfire. Don’t miss out on the Holly Jolly Christmas parade or the animated story tree that will be on display. 

The magical display of candles and lights at Brookgreen Gardens is unlike any other. The Night of a Thousand Candles brings over 5,500 hand-lit candles and sparkling lights to the garden. Walk and explore the various paths while holiday music plays in the background.

At the Festival of Lights in Charleston, two million dazzling lights light up James Island County Park. The three mile drive through the light show is just the beginning of holiday festivities. Over 50 tons of sand have been sculpted into festive winter landscapes and holiday decorations. Enjoy an enchanting train ride, marshmallow roasting and Santa’s sweet shop in a Southern winter wonderland.

Photo credit: Brookgreen Gardens Facebook

The Bull Run Festival of Lights


Drive through two and a half miles of holiday lights at The Bull Run Festival of Lights. Snowmen, penguins and Santa and his elves can all be found at this holiday festival. When you finish the ride through the light show, don’t forget to visit the Winter Wonderland Holiday Village, where you can go ice skating and enjoy more holiday entertainment. 

The holiday festivities in Old Town Alexandria can be found throughout the town and even on the water. Find hand-crafted gifts and traditional European food at the holiday market or head to the waterfront to see more than 50 decorated boats cruise down the Potomac river for the annual Holiday Boat Parade of Lights

Photo credit: The Bull Run of Festival of Lights Facebook

ZooLights at the Smithsonian National Zoo

Washington D.C.

More than 500,000 lights transform the Smithsonian National Zoo into a winter wonderland for the annual festive holiday experience called ZooLights. Along with the holiday lights, some of the nocturnal critters will be awake throughout the night. Hop on the Zoo Choo-Choo train to see the great cats exhibit illuminated with holiday lights or try snow-less tubing down one of the 150-foot-long tracks around the zoo. Want to see more animals? The Small Mammal House, Reptile Discovery Center and Think Tank will all be open during ZooLights.

Photo credit: ZooLights at the National Zoo Facebook

Key West Holiday Fest


Expect to find an abundance of Christmas cheer at the Pensacola Winterfest. Enjoy a cup of hot chocolate while riding the Polar Express and snow flurries in Plaza Wonderland on Palafox Place.

At the Key West Holiday Fest, don’t expect to see a parade just on land. Head to the water to see one of the holiday parades and visit the harbor for a sea of lights. 

Since 1985, Snowfest has taken over Naples with, literally, tons of snow. Starting out with only five tons, the festival has grown to produce over 100 tons of snow for hundreds of people to enjoy.

Photo credit Key West Holiday Events and Celebrations Facebook

Fantasy in Lights at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia


Named as one of National Geographic’s Top 10 Light displays, Fantasy in Lights at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, is a mesmerizing and enchanting light show that is illuminated with over eight million lights. Some of the holiday scenes on display include a winter wonderland of snowflakes and elves busy at work in Santa’s workshop. 

Celebrate with the holidays with Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer at the Stone Mountain Christmas celebrations. Over two million colorful lights and holiday music create a festive holiday experience for everyone. Explore the world of Rudolph and the Misfit Toys in a 4D show or ride the Singalong Christmas Train up to the top of Stone Mountain. 

Head to the Lanier Islands for the 25th anniversary of Magical Nights of Lights. The show is returning after a two-year hiatus and is putting on a show that includes 13 different displays with holiday tunes. The 12 Days of Christmas display is returning to join other classic holiday scenes like Santa’s Elves at Work, the North Pole Express and an Icicle Tunnel. 

Photo credit: BulbAmerica.com Facebook

Christmas in Natchitoches, Louisiana


Named as one of the best Christmas towns in America by Country Living Magazine, Natchitoches, Louisiana knows how to celebrate Christmas. In downtown Natchitoches, the Festival of Lights has been celebrated for decades. For the 91st show, over 300,000 Christmas lights will illuminate the town and 100 set pieces will be on display on the riverbank of Cane River Lake. 

Photo credit: Natchitoches Christmas

Downtown Square in Fayetteville


Over 3,300 hours of decorating and 400,000 lights goes into creating the Lights of the Ozarks festival in the Downtown Square in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Make sure to take a carriage ride through the downtown area while holiday music plays in the background.

The Holiday Lights at Garvan Woodland Gardens is an outdoor holiday light show unlike any other in the area. Across 18 acres, the gardens will be illuminated with holiday lights and a few new features in the Winter Garden display. The Ice Dandelion “is an animated light display using cutting edge technology called ‘color blossoms.’ Dandelion seeds will be blown into the wind and cascade in a wave of light through the Garden.” Another highlight of the show is the 50 foot-tall Rose Tree that features an animated light show and a twelve-minute holiday musical celebration. 

Photo credit: Experience Fayetteville Facebook

Southern Lights Holiday Festival


Drive through three miles of lights at the Southern Lights Holiday Festival in Lexington. Attracting over 120,000 visitors each year, this light show has become a holiday tradition for Kentucky and surrounding states. 

You’ll have to head underground to visit this next holiday light festival. Each year the Louisville Mega Cavern transforms into a winter wonderland. Take a ride through 17 miles of underground passageways to see over 850 displays that are illuminated with three million lights. 

Photo credit: Southern Lights Facebook

The Banquet Hall

North Carolina

For a truly spectacular Southern Christmas, head to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. The Biltmore House is decorated with dozens of Christmas trees and thousands of ornaments and lights. As you take a tour of the estate, live performers will be playing Christmas music for everyone to enjoy. Make sure to visit the winery, where Champagne bubble ornaments cover the ceiling.

At the Tangelwood Park’s Festival of Lights in Clemmons, North Carolina, the festival transforms the park into a winter wonderland with snowflakes and winter scenes. Each year a quarter of a million people come to explore five miles of lights and Christmas music. Over 100 displays are illuminated with a million different lights.   

Photo credit: Biltmore Facebook

Christmas in Grapevine


The “Christmas Capital of Texas” knows how to celebrate the holidays. In Grapevine, Texas, the whole town decks the halls and celebrates with over 1,400 festive activities and events to enjoy. Each night in historic downtown, Grapevine the Lights Show Spectacular lights up the town with millions of lights. Using nearly two million pounds of ice, ICE! at Gaylord Texan has turned the hotel into a winter wonderland made of life-sized ice sculptures, ice slides and ice decorations. Or for a family adventure, hop aboard the North Pole Express for magical train ride. 

The Trail of Lights in Austin has been lighting up the town during the holiday season for the past 50 years. The show sparkles with two million lights and attracts nearly 400,000 people each year. Grab a bite to eat from one of Austin’s favorite food trucks before taking a walk to see more than 40 different displays. 

Photo credit: Lisa Kidd Berg

The Oglebay Winterfest of Lights in Wheeling, West Virginia

West Virginia

The Oglebay Winterfest of Lights in Wheeling, West Virginia has grown into one of the biggest holiday light shows since it began in 1985. Each year over a million people visit a show that covers more than 300 acres, which can be seen during a six-mile drive throughout Oglebay Park. This year, two new displays add even more lights and holiday joy to the show. The Christmas Chameleon, inspired by the chameleons at Oglebay Good Zoo, changes colors right before your eyes. Featuring animated gingerbread men and snowflakes, the Kaleidoscope Christmas Tree stands 24 feet tall and is made up of 1,800 LED lights. 

Over 900,000 lights transform Lotito City Park into a winter wonderland each year for Holiday of Lights in Bluefield, West Virginia. Take a trolley ride through the park to see displays of snowmen and snowflakes or polar bears skating in the park. Kids who love Disney’s “Frozen” can take a magical hayride with Elsa and Olaf and see the light show while singing their favorite songs from the movie. 

Photo credit: Oglebay Resort & Conference Center Facebook

Christmas in Pigeon Forge


The Smoky Mountain Winterfest brings together Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville for one of the best Christmas festivals in East Tennessee. Along with trolley rides to see dazzling holiday light displays in each town, you can also visit Santa’s workshop in Dollywood or watch the Fantasy of Lights Christmas parade in Gatlinburg all with the beautiful Smoky Mountains in the background.

In Chattanooga, the holidays aren’t complete without a trip to the Enchanted Garden of Lights at Rock City. Create your own path through the winter wonderland by starting at the North Pole Highway where you can visit the Artic Kingdom, Yule Town and the Magic Forest. To experience holiday magic in a traditional order begin with the Grand Corridor in Yule Town. Don’t forget to snack on reindeer corn (kettle corn) and sip on hot cocoa and apple cider while enjoying this holiday light show. 

Photo credit: My Pigeon Forge Facebook

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Rachel Taylor is a staff writer at Southern Kitchen. She moved to Atlanta earlier this year after graduating college in Maryland, and has been a digital audience specialist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Politically Georgia, as well as a freelance writer for publications such as USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She has lived in France and Italy, and loves to travel.