The holiday countdown is on – but all you really want for Christmas is to escape to a place where jingling bells, lights and traditions promise to make your season merry and bright.
It’s not too late. Fill the tank and hit the road to holiday destinations even Santa would recommend – some with international flair.
Experiencing a German, French or Swedish holiday no longer requires a passport. Just grab a roadmap and set a course for Hermann, Ste. Genevieve or Bishop’s Hill.
Frohliche Weihnachten in Hermann
Nestled in what’s considered the German Rhineland of Missouri, Hermann is the epicenter for the state’s German culture. Founded in the 1830s, Hermann welcomes visitors longing to celebrate a truly German Christmas.
The holidays kick off Nov. 29 with the city’s Annual Lantern Parade and Tree Lighting in its historic district. Along with a slate of Christmas concerts, carriage rides and holiday exhibits, visitors can indulge in “Just Say Cheese” – a wine and cheese pairing event Dec. 14-15 sponsored by the Hermann Wine Trail. This event spotlights six of the Trail’s acclaimed wineries. Two of those wineries, Stone Hill Winery and Hermannhof, also welcome the season with German Christmas markets. Kriskindl Markt at Stone Hill is Dec. 7-8, and Christkindl Markt at Hermannhof is Dec. 14-15.
To explore old world German traditions, visit Deutschheim State Historic Site or Hermann Farm. Deutschheim preserves Missouri’s 19th century German American heritage at its two sites, the Pommer-Gentner and the Strehly House. Each will be bedecked in winter greenery and illuminated by lantern light. Sample German lebkuchen or springerle cookies while strolling the site, which may also be visited by Belsnickel. Clad in fur and bearing gifts like St. Nicholas, this folklore legend from southwest Germany is more grumpy than jolly. But you might be able to sweeten him up if you share your soft, gingerbread lebkuchen or an anise-flavored springerle cookie.
At Hermann Farm, near Hermannhof winery, is a collection of historic structures dating from a 1790s-era trading post to the 1847 Teubner-Husmann House where visitors can step back in time.
God Jul at Bishop Hill
Nestled in western Illinois, the Swedish Festival of Lights is preserved and presented each yuletide season at Bishop Hill. Founded by Swedish immigrants in 1846, Bishop Hill glows with candlelight in anticipation of St. Lucia, Queen of Light, whose feast day is Friday, Dec. 13.
According to legend, Lucia appeared in Sweden during a time of famine wearing a white robe and a crown of candles, bringing a ship filled with food. Once the food was unloaded, Lucia and the ship disappeared. During the Festival of Light, St. Lucia is seen throughout Bishop Hill in her white robe and candle crown. The Festival of Light begins Dec. 13. The lighting of the Park Christmas Tree is followed by various concerts throughout the village. Festivities continue the following day with more concerts and an old fashion barn dance.
A trip to Bishop Hill would not be complete without a visit to Julmarknad, the Swedish Christmas Market. Julmarknad is open Nov. 29 and 30 and Dec. 1 and 8. Visitors can shop for handmade items, gifts and fresh-baked Swedish spice cookies. But, keep a look out for the Tomten and Julbock. Tomten are Swedish elves that can be caught looking through windows and peeking around corners in their red and grey outfits. Julbock is the Christmas goat, a trickster that roams the village to the delight of visitors.
Joyeux Noël, Ste. Genevieve
Santa Claus uses a different name when visiting Ste. Genevieve.
Père Noël, as he is known, is welcomed each December in the historic French village, where the annual holiday is celebrated with French colonial music, food and crafts.
Le Réveillon, held each year at the Felix Valle House State Historic Site in the heart of the old town, is a favorite tradition shared by visitors and residents alike. Le Réveillon is a feast held after midnight mass and featuring 13 desserts – one for Christ and one for each of his disciples. Most famous among those desserts might be the Buche de Noël or Yule Log.
During Le Réveillon, on Dec. 7, costumed guides present early 19th century French Christmas customs at the Valle House along with music and refreshments.
Ste. Genevieve’s Holiday Christmas Festival is scheduled the same day as the Valle House’s celebration. Catch the Festival’s Christmas parade and sidewalk carolers. Stroll the streets and admire the decorations before ducking into the shops, churches or other historic sites to catch free concerts or sample French croquignoles – powdered sugar doughnuts.
Plan a trip back to Ste. Genevieve on Dec. 14 for its annual Christmas Fair and Santa Bash, held at the Community Center.
For those looking for a non-traditional holiday light show, plan a trip to the nearby Crown Valley Tiger Sanctuary. Each December, the grounds are lit for a unique holiday experience. Afterward, sip hot chocolate, decorate cookies and try your hand at seasonal crafts. Tiger Holiday Light Tours are offered for three days only: Dec. 19, 20 and 21.
Finding Santa in Santa Claus, Indiana
When Santa isn’t at the North Pole you’ll find him at his American address, Santa Claus, Indiana. A place to shop, explore and enjoy all things Christmas, all year long – even if the town’s namesake is a part-time resident.
Santa Claus, located in southern Indiana, was originally was named Santa Fe before changing its name in the 1850s. That decision proved to be a break for the U.S. Postal Service, which in 1914 began directing Santa’s letters addressed to the North Pole to Indiana. Mail for Santa still arrives daily. In December, that delivery swells to over 400,000 pieces compared to the usual 13,000 pieces each month.
Thousands of cards and other holiday mail are brought by visitors to Santa Claus to be postmarked. If you need to write Santa a letter, stop in at the old post office inside the Santa Claus Museum and Village. The post office is easy to find. It’s right next to town’s iconic 22-foot-tall Santa statue.
Santa Claus’ annual Christmas Celebration extends to nearby sites throughout Spencer County. Two jolly destinations, located minutes from downtown, are Lake Rudolph’s 12-mile light display and the Candlelight Walk at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial on Dec. 21.