In the darkest season of the year, light displays lend sparkle to the spirit. All over the country, homeowners, storekeepers and entire municipalities show their artistic and spiritual creativity with displays that will tickle your heart. A drive through these showcases also will bring your family closer.
Almost every faith celebrated its holiest days with lights. Pagans celebrate the longest night giving way to lengthening days with candles and other light-bringing rituals. Jews find special meaning in lighting candles on menorahs during the eight days of Hanukkah. The Festival of Lights commemorates the rededication of the Temple and the temple oil that burned miraculously for eight days. Christians decorate with lights to evoke the star of Bethlehem and the birth of their savior, the "Light of the World," Jesus.
Whatever faith your family follows, incorporate a new tradition of piling in the car together for a decoration drive on one special night when the neighborhoods, shopping districts, town squares, and city plazas are ablaze with lights both grand and small.
Across the nation, certain holiday displays have distinguished themselves as world-class attractions. If you're celebrating the season near one of them, make a special point of spending an evening in its glittering thrall. Here are just a few of the well-known displays across the country:
In Kansas City, Missouri, the J.C. Nichols Country Club Plaza is decked out with millions of lights outlining the city's renowned Spanish architecture, tony stores, and famous fountains. Deeper in the state, in country-music territory, Branson boasts a two-month-long Festival of Lights, part of the Ozark Mountain Christmas Celebration; the centerpiece of the festivities is the two-mile-long Festival of Lights Parkway, with 500 Christmas trees set among eye-popping illuminated displays.
In Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dollywood gussies up with more than 3 million lights for Smoky Mountain Christmas. In Waxahachie, Texas, just outside of Dallas, all the light comes from oil-burning lamps in a live reenactment of Christ's birth in the town of Bethlehem, complete with Roman soldiers in the streets. You'll also see a manger with real camels, wise men, and the holy family; and street vendors and villagers going about their business in historically accurate (for the most part) shops, homes, and synagogues.
In the Orlando, Florida area, Disney-MGM Studios turns it on with the "Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights." Started by Arkansas businessman Jennings Osborne, who honed his skills creating a world-famous display for his daughter in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Osborne show incorporates 350 miles of Christmas lights. In Newport News, Virginia, the 100 Miles of Lights Display features drive- and walk-through light shows, lighted boat parades, and city illuminations. St. Augustine, Florida, lights up its historic bayfront district with its famous Bridge of Lions. In New York, the world's largest menorah burns for the eight nights of Hanukkah near Central Park.
Chicago's Magnificent Mile is even more magnificent with more than a million lights illuminating Michigan Avenue for the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. Out west in Arizona, the Sedona Festival of Lights makes holiday magic with 6,000 Mexican lanterns illuminating the festive Spanish Village. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir provides the soundtrack for millions of twinkling lights at the Temple Square at Christmas in Salt Lake City, Utah. And, of course, there are the nation's most famous Christmas trees, our national tree in Washington, D.C., and the Rockefeller Center tree in New York City.
Even if you can't make it to one of these renowned displays, there's a seasonal showcase within driving distance of your home. Whether you live in a city or in the suburbs, whole streets, if not entire neighborhoods, dress up in decorations. Finding them might be as easy as keeping your eyes peeled for areas of unusual brightness on your daily commute home. Watch the local papers and the news for stories about extraordinary displays and make note of them. And don't forget your trusty Chamber of Commerce and your local convention and visitors bureau; these folks are always in the know.
To give your decoration drive a personal touch, you may enjoy decking your car with boughs of holly and making it your sleigh for the night. You can make the atmosphere even merrier by dressing the part yourself. It can be as easy as a red Santa cap for every family member. Or, go all-out and dress the kids as elves from head to toe, and make you, Mom and Dad, into Mr. and Mrs. Claus. If your car is really going to be convincing as Santa's sleigh, a few jingle bells may be in order. Pine boughs and red or gold bows on the front grille aid the transformation.
Eat, drink, and be merry. You'll be the hostess with the most holiday cheer when you bring holiday treats. Now's no time to be a Scrooge about keeping the car crumb-free, so plan ahead and have a tarp or lightweight plastic on hand to place on the seats (of course, do not let kids play with it). Pack thermoses of spiced cider and eggnog, and a colorful tin full of Christmas cookies. Insulated, lidded coffee mugs will keep drinks warm and minimize spills. A small trash bag and a container of wipes will make clean-up effortless.
Turn up the tunes and carol away. Bring along your favorite holiday CDs or tapes, or get some new ones. Tried-and-true carols and hymns never fail to bring on the spirit of the season. Mix it up a little with a Christmas blues compilation. Turn up the car stereo and the heat; wrap everybody in fleece and put down the windows. "Silent Night" never sounds so good as when the whole family harmonizes, snuggled together in the chill of a winter night. When you're singing as one in the family car, driving through shimmering displays of light, love will shine.
Kick back and drive. Mosey slowly through winter wonderlands. Go methodically or go randomly -- just go safely and with holiday happiness. If you are on your way to an over-the-top display you've heard about or a live manger that reenacts the first Christmas, leave plenty of time for leisurely detours on your way there or on your way home. Expect traffic.
Share the light. If you'd like to try your hand at photographing Christmas lights, purchase film of speed ISO 800 or higher (ISO stands for "International Standards Organization"; the term that has largely replaced ASA). For more tips on taking photos of holiday lights, check out the New York Institute of Photography Web site. Establish a best-photo-of-the-decoration-drive contest among family members and pick a suitable prize for the winner; you might even use the winning shot in next year's family holiday letter.
Invent other contests as you drive. Here are a few ideas:
Family traditions are borne of experiences like this. If you've never done a decoration drive before, make this the first of many magical nights to come. You and the kids will light up with the love and laughter and wonder of the holidays when you do.
Dana Joseph is a freelance travel writer based in Dallas, Texas.