By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services
Thank goodness for that hot chocolate.
As a kid, we would bundle up (this was New York, after all) and then nudge and push until we got a glimpse of the great tree at Rockefeller Center (www.rockefellercenter.com), this year strung with 30,000 LED lights. Ditto for the lavishly decorated store windows lining Fifth Avenue. The crowds were much more than we anticipated and sometimes we could barely see the fanciful displays. We were usually freezing and begging my parents to leave.
Honestly, the most fun was the hot chocolate afterward.
I bet you have the same holiday memories. You would think I’d have learned, but years later I made my husband repeat the drill with our kids in downtown Chicago. (There was one memorable holiday visit when my 2-year-old daughter got her lips stuck “kissing” the door of the Museum of Science and Industry (www.msichicago.org) where we’d gone to see the famous display of Christmas trees from around the world.
If we were lucky enough to be in a ski town over the holidays, we’d gawk at the lights in Jackson Hole, Wy., (www.jacksonhole.com) (the kids especially loved the huge Town Square Antler Arch, which was comprised of some 2,000 antlers) or on historic Crested Butte’s main street, Elk Avenue (www.visitcrestedbutte.com) or the quintessential New England ski town Stowe, Vt., (www.gostowe.com), which offers its own ski museum.
But I think the most fun we had was driving around a neighborhood where we knew no one, gawking at the displays — the more garish the better. This was, of course, before the days when my environmentally minded kids worried about the wasted energy.
Wherever you are this holiday season, take some time to see the lights with the kids. In most cases, it won’t cost anything (except for a hot drink afterward). If your family is anything like mine, you are guaranteed memories that will last for years — though they won’t necessarily be the ones you anticipated. (We still talk about that Chicago “ice kiss” every winter.)
Here are 20 festivals of lights, large and small, for your gang to check out:
1. The River of Lights, Albuquerque, N.M.
This is New Mexico’s largest walk-through holiday light show in Rio Grande Botanic Garden, featuring giant light sculptures of plants, animals and seasonal themes.
2. Holiday Trail of Lights, Athens, Ohio
You can hike through the forest to view more than 100,000 lights at Holiday Trail of Lights in Lake Hope State Park in southeast Ohio.
3. Trail of Lights, Austin, Texas
Zilker Park’s Trail of Lights is a mile-long stretch with seasonal scenes composed of multi-colored twinkle lights. There is also an annual Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.
4. Freedom Trail Holiday Stroll, Boston, Mass.
The Freedom Trail Holiday Stroll features the largest Christmas tree in New England. Take the walk or check out the display of 40 decorated holiday trees.
5. Holiday Festival of Lights, Charleston, S.C.
Celebrate the Holiday Festival of Lights in Charleston County Park where you’ll drive three miles through millions of lights and hundreds of displays.
6. The Moody Gardens Festival of Lights, Galveston, Texas
The Moody Gardens Festival of Lights is one of the largest celebrations on the Gulf Coast with more than 100 sound-enhanced light displays and more than 1 million lights!
7. Lighted Christmas Balls, Greensboro, N.C.
Tool around the neighborhood of Sunset Hill viewing hundreds of lighted Christmas balls that float through the trees. Those touring are invited to bring nonperishable food items for the poor. Last year, more than 3,000 pounds of food were donated.
8. Circle of Lights, Indianapolis, Ind.
The Circle of Lights is celebrating its 48th year and includes 26 gigantic toy soldiers and sailors and 90,000 lights in the trees. Many Indianapolis attractions offer free admission on one of the 12 days leading up to Christmas.
9. Milwaukee Holiday Lights Festival, Milwaukee, Wis.
Thousands of lights, animated displays and even a stretch of Moravian Stars stretch along Wisconsin Avenue.
10. Christmas Town USA, McAdenville, N,C.
McAdenville is known throughout the state as Christmas Town USA for its holiday lights. Virtually every home is decorated.
11. Christmas By the Sea, Mystic, Conn.
Stroll through the decorated 10th-century village and listen to holiday stories told aboard historic vessels, or print a Christmas card, buy a souvenir toy or build a creation at a Gingerbread Workshop.
12. Nights of a Thousand Candles, Pawleys Island, S,C.
Brook Green Gardens’ Nights of a Thousand Candles includes festive holiday lights and thousands of candles illuminating garden paths.
13. Winterfest, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Dollywood theme park puts up more than 5 million holiday lights in gigantic displays. During Winterfest the park adds another 3 million lights and special entertainment for its annual Smoky Mountain Christmas.
14. Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, Ga.
Callaway Gardens, just north of Atlanta, features 8 million lights stretching more than five miles, creating 14 holiday scenes.
15. Vintage Christmas, Portsmouth, N.H.
Vintage Christmas touts sparking lights and a month-long festival of strolls and shows. Visit the Strawbery Banke Museum, a living history museum celebrating holiday traditions, including a Russian Jewish Hanukkah and a Victorian Christmas.
16. Tacky Light Tours, Richmond, Va.
This tour is a local tradition where people even rent buses or limos to take it.
17. Holiday of Lights, San Diego, Ca.
Located at the Del Mar Fairgrounds north of San Diego there are more than 350 family-oriented light displays here.
18. Red Rock Fantasy Light Show, Sedona, Ariz.
Sedona celebrates the 20th Anniversary of its light show at Los Abrigados Resort and Spa, which offers 23 displays and more than 1 million lights.
19. Lights on the Lake, Syracuse, N.Y.
This is a two-mile-long drive through one of the largest light shows in the Northeast.
20. 100 Miles of Lights, Virginia Beach, Va.
This scenic, 30-block tour along Virginia Beach’s Ocean Front Boardwalk showcases a 40-foot-tall tree on the beach, as well as a “Fanta-Sea” of Lights display with more than 500,000 lights.
Have a hot chocolate on me.
© 2010 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.