Written by Hayley Swinson
It’s that time of year again: the weather’s cooling off, decorative lights are up, Jingle Bells is playing on loop at the mall. Luckily the holiday events and celebrations kickoff early, with several events in late November and early December running all the way until the New Year. And there’s one thing they all have in common: lights. From candlelight tours to LED-lit gardens and coves, the holiday season in the Cape Fear offers something for everyone. Most rewarding, though, is the light you’ll see on kids’ faces as they experience each event for the first time.
Christmas by the Sea—Carolina Beach
When: Kickoff is Saturday, November 24th6:30-10:30
December 1st, 8th, and 15thfrom 6:30-10:30
Where:Carolina Beach Boardwalk and Gazebo Stage
“Last year was the first year that we had [22 piece orchestra] Artistry in Jazz come,” says Eric Jelinski, Parks and Recreation Director for the Town of Carolina Beach. “It was really awesome to see them incorporate their jazz music with a holiday twist…to have the boardwalk area filled with this beautiful music.” The orchestra will return for Carolina Beach’s Christmas by the Sea kickoff again this year.
The event is powered by volunteers, local businesses, and community organizations: from the Fire Department roasting marshmallows to Carolina Coast Vineyard Church hosting an ornament crafting workshop at Latella Gelato. Even Santa will make an appearance in his workshop from 6:30-8:30 each night.
“We encourage people to make a night of it…meander around the lake to see the beautiful lights. Grab dinner at the boardwalk or a restaurant nearby,” Jelinski suggests. Each cove is decorated by a different local business, and kids will get go on pony rides, make ornaments, and even hang out with Olaf from Disney’s Frozen.
Don’t miss the Holiday Flotilla on December 1stat 6:00PM at Carolina Beach Boat Basin.
Tryon Palace Candlelight Masquerade—New Bern
When:December 8th, 15th4:30-9:30PM
Where:Tryon Palace, New Bern
Every holiday season, the 1770s come alive at Tryon Palace in New Bern. You’ll see jugglers, slack-line walkers, musical groups, a militia regiment, the Fife and Drum Corps, more than 50 costumed reenactors, and Jonkonnu, an African tradition from the days of slavery.
As guests tour the palace, performers act out vignettes in each room, including a masquerade ball. Guests also have the opportunity to make and wear their own masks during the celebration. This year the décor is themed around the four elements. “It’s almost like a scavenger hunt,” says Regina Ochoa, Director of Public Affairs at Tryon Palace. “The decorations are very subtly but also beautifully inspired.”
Several historic homes are open for tours, representing time periods ranging from 1770 to 1830 to 1950. In the palace courtyard, guests can take a break under a tent and enjoy beer, wine, hot chocolate, coffee and light snacks. Two food trucks are stationed outside the palace gates.
Ochoa recommends showing up early, regardless of your tour time. “Wear comfortable shoes,” she says, “Bring your camera. Take advantage of how much there is to explore.”
Though the event officially ends at 9:30, fireworks generally last until 10:00.
Enchanted Airlie Walking Tour—Wilmington
When:November 23rd, 24th, 30th
December 1st, 7th-22nd
Where: Airlie Gardens
Cost:$30/Carload Ticket, $55/XL Van Ticket
Enchanted Airlie was started in 2005 as a way to bring in more visitors in the off-season. Since then it has grown into a popular event that sells out every year. Over the years, the light displays have changed and been updated. “We keep some of the displays the same,” says Janine Powell, Director of Donor Relations at Airlie Gardens. “We always have our cone trees, made from strings of lights, throughout the gardens. Every year we try to add a few new things. We keep it traditional but fresh.”
All the display ideas are staff-driven, explains Powell. They don’t use any outside designers. Inside the Poinsettia Paradise tent, food and beverage options are available for guests for an extra charge, and Santa reads kids’ Christmas lists in the Airlie Gardens classroom. “One of the most unique things is that it is a walking tour,” Powell says. Guests can proceed at their own pace, enjoying the lights, the Christmas music, and the holiday spirit.
Powell recommends coming on a weeknight, when it tends to be less crowded.
Christmas Light Show at Mike’s Farm—Beulaville
When:Festival of Lights Hayrides held nightly Nov 23rd-Dec 23rdstarting at 6:00PM
Where:Mike’s Farm in Beulaville
Cost:$9.00 per person, prices vary for other events
Mike’s Farm started out selling Christmas trees in the mid 1980s, but as agri-tourism became more popular, they expanded their offerings. “You don’t gain ground as a business if you gain new customers but lose your old,” says Theresa Lowe, “Mrs. Mike.”
In 1997, the Lowes started their Christmas light show, now their biggest event of the year. Reservations for their restaurant and Christmas-themed events such as Supper with Santa and the Ho Ho Christmas Show open on August 1stand typically sell out early.
For nights that don’t require restaurant reservations (Th, F, Sat), the lines can be long, and it’s not unusual for people to line up two hours in advance. If you’re not looking to sit down, you can eat at the bakery, the hotdog house, or the food truck that serves the same family-style meal as the restaurant.
The Festival of Lights Hayride is first-come-first-served and consists of a thirty-minute jaunt around the farm past elaborate light exhibits, a live nativity, Christmas music, and a patriotic ending. Ten to twelve wagons run simultaneously to keep the lines moving faster. “When it’s all said and done, just knowing people think of Mike’s Farm as a fun place to go and want to spend their holidays out here hopefully means that we’re doing something right,” says Theresa Lowe.
Just coming for a hayride? Lines are typically shorter Sun-Wed, during the reservation-only restaurant nights.
Old Wilmington By Candlelight—Wilmington
When: Saturday, December 1, 4:00-8:00PM
Sunday, December 2, 1:00-5:00PM
Caroling is on Friday, November 30, starting at 6:00PM.
Where: Start at the Latimer House, then tour the 12 homes and churches in any order you like.
Cost: $40 per person, sold online or at the door.
Step into the warmth of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society’s Latimer House for an Edwardian Christmas, where you’ll be greeted by costumed docents—think Downton Abbey. It is the 46thannual Old Wilmington by Candlelight Tour, where guests can tour a dozen historic homes and churches. “We really try to show a wide variety of architecture and history,” says Rachel Rhine, Manager of Operations for the LCFHS.
This year, the Mitchell-Anderson house—Wilmington’s oldest house—will be featured for the first time. Each homeowner decorates in their own style, often competing with each other for best-decorated. The Edward Latimer house will showcase period clothing and photographs of the owner’s socialite daughters.
The churches featured include St. Mark’s Episcopal, Shiloh Missionary Baptist, and Chestnut Street Presbyterian. These houses of worship represent over one hundred years of African American history in our region.
The Friday night prior to the tours, costumed volunteers will lead “Caroling by Candlelight”, a tradition LCFHS is bringing back this year. It is free and open to the public. “All you have to bring is a little bit of joy and your voices,” says Rhine.
Missed the tour? Swing by the Latimer house during regular hours the first week or two of December to see their Edwardian Christmas decorations.