Christmas in Carolina: Festive Southern Traditions
The southern U.S. is renowned for its warm hospitality, distinctive charm, and mouthwatering culinary creations. During Christmastime, these qualities shine especially bright as Carolinians celebrate beloved traditions, gather with loved ones, and make merry through time-honored customs.
Experience Classic Southern Christmas Traditions
From elaborately decorated homes glowing with lights to towns hosting festive parades and craft bazaars, Christmas in the Carolinas brims with cherished traditions and family-friendly seasonal activities.
Take in Gorgeously Decorated Neighborhoods & Public Spaces
Many Carolinians begin decorating their homes and gardens right after Thanksgiving in anticipation of the coming holiday season. From classic red bows and garlands to over-the-top light displays synchronized to music, no detail is overlooked. Historic downtown areas also dazzle with lights strewn between old brick buildings and magnificent town Christmas trees adorned with handmade ornaments. Some can't-miss holiday light displays include:
- Historic Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights - Over 750,000 visitors flock to James Island County Park each November and December to experience this breathtaking drive-through light show featuring over 2 million twinkling bulbs.
- Biltmore Estate's Candlelight Christmas Evenings - The nation's largest privately owned home located in Asheville turns into a magical winter wonderland straight out of a fairytale with its glowingly lit gardens, charming candlelit rooms, roaring fires, and lavish Christmas trees that soar to the ceiling.
- McAdenville, North Carolina, Also Known as “Christmas Town USA” - This charming small town boasts over 375 live Christmas trees blanketed in 500,000 red, green, and white lights along Main Street.
Experience Classic Southern-Style Christmas Parades
Christmas parades are quintessential during the holiday season across North Carolina and South Carolina. With marching bands, classic cars, equestrian clubs, and of course, Santa bringing up the rear, these small-town celebrations promise family-friendly entertainment for all. Some of the best Christmas parades include:
- Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights Parade along historic King Street
- Wilmington Holiday Flotilla of brightly illuminated boats sailing down the Cape Fear River
- Asheville Downtown After Five Holiday Parade with street performances and festive floats gliding through lively Pack Square
- Belmont, NC “Christmas Town” Parade featuring Mr. and Mrs. Claus along with snow in this charming Gaston County village
Enjoy Seasonal Craft Fairs & Holiday Markets
From mid-November through Christmas Eve, spirited holiday markets and European-style Christmas craft fairs delight visitors across the Carolinas. They offer perfect places to find unique handmade gifts and artisanal goods you won’t find elsewhere while reveling in live entertainment such as caroling, bell choirs, dance performances, visits with Santa, and even real snowfalls. Top Christmas markets and craft fairs include:
- Charlotte’s Carowinds WinterFest Wonderland
- An Old Time Moravian Christmas in Historic Bethabara Park demonstrating 18th-century Moravian traditions
- Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights Crafts Fair
- Christmas at Brattonsville Historic Plantation featuring arts, crafts, and 18th-century living history fun
Delight in Iconic Southern Christmas Food & Drink
From rum infused eggnog and bourbon-spiked cocoa to spiced pecan pies and mouthwatering holiday roasts, Christmas cuisine holds an exalted place at the Southern table. Passed down for generations, many treats blend regional staples like peaches, pecans, sweet potatoes, shrimp, oysters and grits with baked delights highlighting butter, sugar and bourbon into festive incarnations that embody Christmas cheer.
Sip Signature Southern Holiday Libations
What better way to spread Christmas merriment than with a steaming cup or punch bowl filled with a spirited seasonal sipper like:
- Hot Buttered Rum featuring boiling water, spiced rum, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, maple syrup and butter delectable Peach Nog blending peach schnapps, bourbon, milk, cream, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla
- Warm Wassail, a traditional spiced wine punch often made with apple cider, orange juice, lemon juice, cloves, ginger root, cinnamon sticks and other aromatic ingredients steeped in red wine or rum
- Hot Mint Juleps made by steeping mint leaves in bourbon sweetened with maple syrup or simple syrup
- Spiked cocoa by mixing warmed milk or cream with fine chocolate, a dash of vanilla, and either peppermint schnapps, spiced rum, hazelnut liqueur, or orange liqueur
Bake Iconic Christmas Cookies & Desserts
Christmas cookie tins hold prized places in Southern homes and represent years of tradition. Each year families bake generation-old recipes packed with butter, sugar and regional flavors. Classic Southern holiday cookies and desserts include:
- Julie’s Million Dollar Pound Cake: This dense pecan and coconut-filled cake glazed in sweet bourbon sauce comes from a recipe passed down in one North Carolina family for over 100 years.
- Benne Wafers: Beloved in Charleston, these meltaway morsels feature sweet toasted sesame seeds, butter, sugar and flour. Moravian Sugar Cake (Sweet Buns): a tender, cardamom-laced dough layered with butter and brown sugar filling before being rolled and sliced
- Snowball Cookies rolled in powdered sugar to resemble their namesakes
- Russian Tea Cakes, also known as Mexican Wedding Cookies: These beloved melt-in-your-mouth balls of chopped pecans, butter, flour and powdered sugar gain fame for not containing any tea
- Bourbon Pecan Balls with chopped toasted pecans and just the right amount of fine Kentucky bourbon to add oomph
- Dried Peach & Apple Cider Cookies featuring the best of fall and winter flavors between buttery shortbread
Prepare Timeless Christmas Dinner Fare & Sides
From spicy gumbos brimming with shrimp and Andouille sausage to spiral cut hams crowned with glistening clove-studded pineapple rings, Southern Christmas feasts represent the region's cuisine at its finest. Some hallmarks of a true Southern Christmas meal include:
- A perfectly roasted turkey or glazed pit ham serves as the main attraction at many gatherings
- Dressing vs. Stuffing: Ask any Southerner and they'll tell you dressing is the only appropriate name for the savory, herb infused dish made outside the turkey cavity with cornbread, butter, broth and seasonings
- Turnip, Collard and Mustard Greens simmered low and slow with smoked pork and red pepper vinegar
- Sweet Potato Casserole blanketed in toasted mini marshmallows or pecan praline crumble
- Tangy Cranberry Sauce spiked with Southern Comfort whisky or Florida oranges
- Frogmore Stew, also called Beaufort Stew or Lowcountry Boil: This South Carolina specialty features freshly caught shrimp along with smoked sausage, corn on the cob, and potatoes boiled in an aromatic broth redolent of Old Bay Seasoning
- Hoppin' John: No Southern New Year's meal feels complete without this rice-based dish flavored with ham hock and black-eyed peas believed to bring good luck and fortune in the coming year
Celebrate Through Beloved Regional Christmas Events & Performances
From timeless ballets like the “Nutcracker” and Charles Dickens style holiday theater to Christmas train rides through snowy forests, popular Christmas attractions across North Carolina and South Carolina enchant visitors from late November through early January.
Take Festive Christmas Train Rides
Few holiday adventures prove more nostalgic or Instagram-worthy than a ride on a vintage locomotive with Santa. Favorite Christmas train journeys across the Carolinas include:
- Polar Express Train Rides: These immersive trips based on the beloved children’s book come to life with costumed characters, singing, hot chocolate and cookies aboard diesel engines decked out like the magical Christmas Eve Express
- The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad's Santa Train: Take a magical ride through winter scenery in a 1915 steam train to the “North Pole” where Santa and his elves greet families
- Wilmington Railroad Museum's Holiday Express Train: Sip hot cider and capture timeless holiday magic on this charming one hour daytime excursion
- New Hope Valley Railway’s Christmas Express: This scenic one hour roundtrip ride stops at the North Pole Station where Santa boards for photo-ops while carolers serenade guests with Christmas favorites
Soak up Christmas Music, Theater & Dance Performances
From renditions of "The Nutcracker Ballet" to Christmas choral concerts and heartwarming holiday plays, South Carolina and North Carolina come alive with spirited seasonal performances from Thanksgiving through New Year's. Classic Christmas performances not to miss include:
- North Carolina Symphony performing seasonal masterworks like Handel’s Messiah plus their New Year’s Eve concert special in Raleigh
- Christmas Revels celebrations in Charlotte, Greensboro, Asheville, and Black Mountain featuring lively music, dance, and dramatic stories
- Charlotte Ballet's Nutcracker set in 1912 and featuring orchestra performances of Tchaikovsky’s beloved score
- Charleston's Nutcracker Tea blending the magic of dance with a formal tea service held on the Dock Street Theatre’s historic stage
- Christmas Candlelight Tours of historic homes like Biltmore Estate and Charleston's Aiken-Rhett House featuring costumed guided walks accentuated by music from local choirs
Frequently Asked Questions About Christmas in the Carolinas
When do people celebrate Christmas in the Carolinas? Most Christmas festivities begin the day after Thanksgiving, which Southerners affectionately call “Turkey Day”, and continue through early January. Outdoor holiday lights typically shine nightly from late November through early January when most people take decorations down.
What date do children in North and South Carolina usually start their Christmas holiday break? Students begin their winter vacation around December 20th so they’re home with family in time to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on December 24th and 25th, respectively. The holiday school break then lasts approximately two weeks with children returning to classes after New Year's Day on January 2nd.
What traditional Christmas Eve dishes do Carolinians serve? It’s customary for churches, restaurants, and families to keep Christmas Eve meals relatively simple and meat-free leading up to the extravagant feasts on Christmas Day. Go-to dishes include deviled eggs, she-crab soup, fried oyster stew, shrimp and grits, tomato aspic, ambrosia fruit salad, tamales, potato salad, and biscuits.
Is Christmas still celebrated in true traditional Southern fashion across North Carolina and South Carolina or has globalization changed customs? While some classic Southern Christmas traditions fade over time, most remain deeply ingrained regional hallmarks families pass down through generations and towns actively keep alive through spirited annual celebrations. Without a doubt, Christmas in the Carolinas retains its hearty helpings of heartwarming holiday hospitality, cherished foodways, festive music and live entertainment that visitors travel from afar to experience just as they have for over two centuries.
Where are the best Christmas light displays located in the Carolinas? From elaborately decorated historic downtowns and neighborhood districts to spectacular drive-through holiday light shows, top Christmas lights destinations include Charleston’s James Island Festival of Lights, McAdenville’s Christmas Town, Asheville’s Biltmore Estate, Wilmington’s Island of Lights, Raleigh’s Night of Lights at Marbles Kids Museum, plus festive lighted boat flotillas along the Cape Fear River and Charleston Harbor.
Where can you take Christmas train rides in North Carolina and South Carolina? Whimsical North Pole express trains and vintage locomotive rides with Santa operate across both states including Asheville’s Great Smoky Mountain Railroad's Polar Express, Spencer’s North Carolina Transportation Museum, Wilmington Railroad Museum’s Holiday Express, New Hope Valley Railway’s Christmas Train plus passenger cars added to freight trains winding through winter landscapes on theVirginia Creeper Trail between Abingdon, Virginia and Whitetop Station on the North Carolina border.
People also ask about Christmas in the Carolinas:
What traditional Christmas dishes do people in North Carolina and South Carolina serve? Some hallmarks of a Southern Christmas meal across the Carolinas include roasted turkey and ham, savory cornbread dressing baked in butter, sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows or pecan praline crumble, spiked eggnog, Moravian sugar cakes, bourbon balls, hoppin’ john peas and rice for good New Year's luck plus desserts like pecan pie, hummingbird cake, and red velvet cake.
What Christmas performances take place annually in Carolina's cities? Beloved Nutcracker Ballets enchant audiences in Charlotte, Charleston, Greensboro and Asheville where you'll also find Christmas Revels celebrations, charming candlelight home tours with music from caroling choirs, plus concerts from area symphonies and choral societies performing holiday masterworks.
Where are the best Christmas craft shows and markets located in North Carolina and South Carolina? Top Christmas craft fairs and markets selling handmade gifts, artwork and gourmet goods include Charlotte’s Carowinds WinterFest park, historic Charleston and Wilmington holiday markets, An Old Time Moravian Christmas fair in Winston-Salem’s restored 18th-century settlement Bethabara Park and the above-mentioned Christmas Candlelight Tours held at historic plantation homes statewide.
What are the origins of some classic Christmas traditions in the American South? Customs like elaborate illumination displays trace back to late 19th century Louisiana where glowing lanterns lit boats on Bayou St. John during the Christmas Eve réveillon while Santa's arrival by train stems from Appalachian mountain settlements where circuit preachers dressed as St. Nicholas arrived aboard steam engines in remote areas. Even during the Civil War soldiers created makeshift Christmas trees to uplift spirits.
How long do people typically keep their Christmas decorations up in North Carolina and South Carolina? Most outdoor displays stay illuminated from Thanksgiving until New Year's Day or the first week of January. However, tradition calls for keeping live Christmas trees, holly wreaths, mistletoe, evergreen garlands and candles in the window through January 6th, the 12th day after Christmas known as the Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings or Día de los Reyes marking the Biblical story of the Magi's arrival bearing gifts.