They’re just about everywhere you look here in the Northside of this historic, somewhat sleepy little Pennsylvania city. It’s Christmastime in Bethlehem, and thousands of white lights are setting homes, businesses and streets aglow in honor of the city’s Moravian heritage.
The people who founded Bethlehem nearly 300 years ago beat back the night by placing candles in their windows. Today’s citizens of what’s been called the Christmas City keep the tradition going, welcoming strangers from near and far with their own spectacular illumination.
It’s a sight to behold but not the only one worth experiencing in Bethlehem during the most wonderful time of the year. Like such cities as San Antonio; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Branson, Missouri, Bethlehem serves up an enlivening mix of special Yuletide attractions, holiday events and great shopping. Best of all, all five cities also offer faith-based travelers what many others don’t: celebrations that recall the reason for the season. As such, they make a great destination for groups in search of glad tidings of comfort and joy.
Bethlehem gives group travelers two distinct experiences at Christmas, in essence offering double the fun at the same price. The city’s historic Northside is home to lantern-lit holiday walking tours led by costumed interpreters as well as descendants of the city’s Moravian founders, who will hop on motorcoaches to talk about their ancestors. A religious group, the Moravians christened the town Bethlehem — in a stable, no less — on Christmas Eve, 1741.
During the holiday season, there will also be rustic huts with artisans selling their wares set up around the Northside’s Colonial buildings. In addition, Alicia Quinn, vice president of marketing and strategic alliances for Discover Lehigh Valley, recommends that groups experience the Goundie House’s live Advent calendar.
“Each night at 5:30, from the first through the 23rd, someone will knock on the door of the Goundie House, and they’ll come out and tell the Christmas story, and then everyone who gathers gets a treat,” she said. “There are usually live musical performances, so it’s quite fun for groups.”
Meanwhile, Bethlehem’s Southside provides its own inspiring Yuletide sights and sounds at SteelStacks, a 10-acre arts and culture destination located at the former Bethlehem Steel plant. Every Christmas, the old blast furnace is lit in red, green and white lights while in front of it bustles a Christkindlmarkt. Featuring an array of local artisans in tents selling everything from traditional nutcrackers to jewelry, art and food, it also offers a glassblowing tent where group members can make their own ornaments. Leaders can also arrange a special reserved area with catering for their group at the Christkindlmarkt.
San Antonio, Texas
If, as it’s said, they really do things bigger in Texas, that’s especially true of San Antonio at Christmas.
Once events get going with the Ford Holiday River Parade on November 27, they don’t slow down until after New Year’s. It should be noted, however, that like many Christmas festivities happening in San Antonio and cities across the country, the parade remains pending at this time.
Among the many special events that groups can enjoy is the SeaWorld San Antonio Christmas Celebration, which offers not only carolers, hot cocoa and Santa, but also one of the state’s biggest Christmas holiday light displays. And for groups that want to take part in a unique cultural tradition, Market Square is home to La Gran Tamalada, a day of tamale making, with lessons, vendors, corn husk doll-making and a visit from Pancho Claus, who arrives wearing a red sombrero.
Speaking of Santa Claus, groups will see him at the conclusion of the River Parade, riding the last float, which of course floats, as Dee Dee Poteete, director of regional communications for Visit San Antonio noted.
“It’s just fantastic, with costumed float riders, music, bands and highly decorated float barges,” she said. “It runs for two and a half miles with something like 30-plus floats and hundreds of thousands lining the Riverwalk.”
The Riverwalk, which is lit during the holiday with millions of Christmas lights, also hosts boatsful of carolers that float down the water serenading visitors. It’s lovely, but even more meaningful is the Riverwalk’s Fiesta de las Luminarias.
“The luminarias symbolically show the lighting of the way for the Holy Family,” said Poteete. “It is a very Hispanic tradition. We use 2,000 luminarias to line the Riverwalk. It’s breathtaking.”
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Christmas at the beach is never a bad idea, and groups will especially love it at Virginia Beach. Yuletide lights take on a special magic when seen, as Visit Virginia Beach tourism sales manager Jim Coggin said, “from the comfort of your motorcoach as you’re driving down the iconic boardwalk.”
“You have lights on the beach, lights above your head, you have lights on the land side,” he said. “It’s a mile of holiday lights, and they give you a station to turn your radios to, so you have Christmas carols as you go along. It’s a fun tradition that many groups come back and do every year.”
Group leaders should also plan a stop, if not a stay, at the Colonial-style Founders Inn and Spa, on the campus of the Christian Broadcasting Network. The property is decorated to the hilt at Christmas with lights, a gigantic tree and plenty of gingerbread houses and will work with tour leaders to host events like a special dessert reception. Afterward, groups can head down to the TV studios to watch a live taping of Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.”
Speaking of food, Coggin also suggests that groups make time for an oyster tasting at Rockafeller’s Restaurant and to sample the sweets at the Royal Chocolate. The Holiday Parade at the Beach on December 5 is always good fun for motorcoach tours that are in town. And shoppers in the group, Coggin said, will find “every imaginable holiday trinket that you might ever think you might need at the Christmas Mouse.”
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach is known for combining sun and surf with Broadway-quality live shows, and the good times don’t stop during the Christmas season. Companies including the Alabama Theatre and the Pirates Voyage Dinner and Show offer their own takes on the holiday, offering wholesome performances at discounted prices for groups, with added services often included. Among the standouts is the Carolina Opry Christmas Special, dubbed the Christmas Show of the South, now in its 35th season. Opening November 2, it will feature not only performers like Delvin Choice, from NBC’s “The Voice” but also decorations, including a 30-foot tree with more than 25,000 lights.
Another group favorite, Brookgreen Gardens, has extended its Nights of 1,000 Candles an extra 12 evenings, to run from November 27 to December 31. The attraction is “renowned all over the world,” according to Julie Ellis, public relations and communications manager for Visit Myrtle Beach.
“Brookgreen is a 9,000-acre sculpture garden, the largest collection of American sculpture art in the world, and at Christmas, they create sculptures with millions and millions of twinkling lights,” she said. “And then hundreds of volunteers light candles every night, and they’re all over walkways, trees, structures, statues. You wander through this huge, beautiful garden and see the different light displays. It’s really magical.”
If groups can pull themselves away from the splendor of Nights of 1,000 Candles and the inspiration found at Myrtle Beach’s Christmas shows, Ellis said they can shop ‘til they drop while saving big bucks at the city’s two Tanger Outlets.
Faith-based groups should rest assured — Branson knows how to “absolutely keep Christ in Christmas,” according to Lynn Berry, director of communications for Explore Branson. Take this year’s 72nd annual Adoration Parade, happening the first Sunday in December.
“It’s noncommercial: No organization is promoted,” Berry said. “It really is an outpouring from our community honoring the story of Christ. There’s dozens of bands and floats, and then the walking crews. The prelude to the parade is the lighting of our giant Nativity scene atop Mount Branson. Those figures on the ridge are 16 feet tall.”
Branson has plenty else to keep groups in the festive mood: Among the city’s legendary holiday shows is Dolly Parton’s Stampede’s Christmas extravaganza, which features a live Nativity. Berry also recommends that groups visit Silver Dollar City’s “An Old Time Christmas.” The theme park also boasts an eight-story special-effects Christmas tree, lit by 144,000 LED bulbs, and the nightly Rudolph’s Holly Jolly Christmas Light Parade, with nine lighted floats. Groups will also be able to cross names off their shopping list thanks to the park’s more than 60 shops and 100 demonstrating craftspeople.
Like Silver Dollar City, the Promised Land Zoo offers groups discounted ticket prices. And like the theme park, its Christmas display is must-see.
“If you take their Santa Safari, you see live reindeer and camels,” Berry said. “You see a beautiful story told all along the route. And at the end, you can get an ‘Elfie’ with one of the reindeer.”