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Road Trips: Winter Wonderlands

Martha Stewart Living, Volume 109 December 2002

Civic decorating is very popular, though it is a relatively new tradition. Until the early-twentieth century, most holiday trimmings adorned the insides of homes, with greenery occasionally dressing up porches. Then, in 1912, a citizens committee asked the Edison Company to light a giant evergreen in New York City's Madison Square Park, to share the spirit of the season with people who were homeless and destitute. The company covered its "tree of light" with twelve hundred electric bulbs to great acclaim; after all, electric lights were quite an innovation then. And so a new fashion for bringing the holidays outdoors was born.

Today, many U.S. municipalities celebrate the season with glittering decorations on their streetlights and trees swathed in hundreds of colorful bulbs. But it's worth traveling to the following six towns to enjoy their distinctive, homegrown seasonal flair. Each of these communities is full of ideas that you can adapt to your own holiday decor.

Cooperstown, New York
In a sense, what makes Cooperstown's decorations special are their artful restraint. They are the handiwork of the Clark Foundation, a private charitable institution based in the village, which for fifty-two years has created and underwritten them.

"We stay with a very natural look, lots of pods and nuts and earth tones," says Mike Bouton, director of horticulture for the foundation's greenhouses, where the items are designed. More than a dozen sites are draped in evergreens and hung with wreaths.

The decorations take a month to install and utilize almost a mile of garlands made from a mix of evergreens. Still, a chaste sophistication prevails: Displays use only clear fairy lights. Even though Bouton and his team experiment yearly, certain decorations have become annual standards. "I think I'd be tarred and feathered if I tried to change some things," he says.

Santa Fe, New Mexico
This city never seems more true to its Spanish, American Indian, and Anglo heritage than in the chilly heart of December. Each year, the central plaza in front of the Palace of the Governors -- a Spanish Colonial landmark -- is decorated with thousands of farolitos, candles set in sand inside paper bags, while electric versions outline the roofs of the long open porches fronting the square.

On the plaza, the trees are covered with multicolored lights. And for the annual tree-lighting the Friday after Thanksgiving, Santa Claus arrives in a vintage fire engine. Then, on December 15, the city turns off all the streetlights downtown, and Las Posadas -- a procession led by a man and a woman portraying Mary and Joseph -- progresses by candlelight through alleys lined with farolitos. As a band plays mandolins and sings Spanish carols, the couple reach the central plaza and make their way around it, asking for shelter.

They are turned away everywhere until they reach the Palace of the Governors. There, upon Mary and Joseph's arrival, the doors swing open, and the courtyard becomes a setting for music, celebrating, and bonfires called luminarias, which represent the visit of the Bethlehem shepherds.

Natchez, Mississippi
Visiting Natchez for the holidays means a peak at the Old South. The grand antebellum mansions that fill the town’s historic district throw their doors open to visitors each December for candlelight tours. Some owners decorate with rigorous authenticity, trimming mantels and gilt-framed portraits with locally grown evergreens and setting tables with period centerpieces. Others freely outline their elaborate porches with fairy light.

"The Natchez planters were among the wealthiest people in America in their day," says Kathleen Jenkins, curator at Melrose, an estate that is now run by the National Park Service. Re-creating pre -- Civil War decor has become common among the Natchez mansions in the last few years, even though it usually means forgoing poinsettias and other more modern Christmas motifs. "We use only holly, cedar, magnolia, and ivy -- what has always grown on the grounds," says Cheryl Branyan, curator of Rosalie, a local Greek Revival mansion.

Rosalie and Melrose are both stops on the tours, but Melrose presents another side of the antebellum holiday: an exhibit in the old slave quarters about the domestic life of the twenty slaves who once resided there.

Kansas City, Missouri
This city's Art Deco architecture has been the cornerstone of its vibrant revival. But Kansas City's style turns over-the-top at Country Club Plaza, with its Moorish towers, intricate tile work, and Greek-god and nymph statues that appear in fifteen fountains. It's an extraordinary sight during the holidays, when some 280,000 bulbs light the plaza.

Every year, 200,000 people crowd into the plaza's fourteen square blocks for the moment on Thanksgiving night when the switch is thrown. The plaza doesn't have a monopoly on Kansas City holiday decorations, though. Union Station, a recently restored Beaux Arts masterpiece, has also become a holiday center.

This year pastry chef John Lovitch will make a gingerbread village five feet wide and eighty-five feet long, with 260 buildings and a miniature electric train running through it. Still, for most visitors, the lights that twinkle on the plaza's clock towers and iron scrollwork every December night are the city's holiday emblem. In fact, the plaza is so popular that a local chocolatier, Annedores, re-creates the landmark each year.

Portland, Oregon
This Pacific Northwest port has a passion for the water, and every December, the city's large boating community casts off to share its take on the season. With decorations such as angels, Christmas trees, and skiing Santas picked out in lights on their bows, some 60 powerboats and sailboats cruise the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.

Thousands of people stroll Portland's riverfront and its waterfront park to enjoy the flotilla’s offbeat displays, a forty-seven-year tradition. "Portland has been a big part of our lives, and this is our Christmas present to the city," says volunteer skipper Neal Penland.

Solvang, California
Many places take pains to preserve their ethnic roots and showcase them during the holidays, but Solvang celebrates its heritage year-round. Settled by Danish Americans in 1911, this little town -- just two-and-a-half hours north of Los Angeles -- has cobblestone streets, four bakeries, and an old windmill. Today, this walkable village calls itself the Danish capital of America.

Come Thanksgiving, clear white twinkle lights outline facades designed in a variety of Scandinavian styles, some of which have thatched or tiled roofs. Each holiday season, Olsen's Bakery builds an eight-foot-tall gingerbread house that sits in the lobby of the Royal Scandinavian Hotel.

The bakery also offers stollen and Christmas cookies. The Elverhoj Museum mounts crafts demonstrations, including a display of traditional paper cutouts. And the town stages a live nativity pageant featuring burros, baby goats, llamas, cows, and ponies, which is narrated by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

Christmas Indoors
Before the advent of civic decorating in the early-twentieth century, the most lavish seasonal displays were private. Learn how the wealthy adorned their domains by visiting a historic estate.

Biltmore
Asheville, North Carolina
800-289-1895
The Vanderbilts once spent the holidays here and now decorate it with hundreds of poinsettias, pine garlands, and wreaths, as well as Christmas trees.

Winterthur
Winterhur, Delaware
800-448-3883
Once a DuPont family home, Winterthur showcases eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christmas traditions, including tabletop trees.

Longwood Gardens
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
610-388-1000
Comprising one thousand acres of exquisite gardens, woodlands, and meadows, this property once belonged to cousins of the DuPonts. The seasonal show now includes towering Christmas trees, edible ornaments for birds, and decorations made from exotic plants.

Henry Flagler Museum
Palm Beach, Florida
561-655-2833
Railroad magnate Henry Flagler built his palatial home here in 1902. In a twist on candlelight tours, the mansion’s original electrical fixtures are illuminated, while a pipe organ plays carols.

A Museum Devoted to Christmas
The National Christmas Center occupies twenty thousand square feet of a former banquet hall in the rolling Amish countryside near Lancaster. It's chock-full of Christmas memorabilia -- ornaments in cases, evergreen on the walls, and iridescent papier-mache snowflakes twirling against the cobalt-blue ceiling. This is all the brainchild of Santa Clausian Jim Morrison, who has amassed Christmas ephemera since he was a boy. Now he has put his collection on display so visitors can enjoy his quirky, heartfelt celebration of the holiday.

The National Christmas Center
3427 Lincoln Highway
Paradise, PA 17562
717-442-7950

Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina