If you’ve ever watched It’s a Wonderful Life and dreamed about spending the holidays in a quaint, snowy hamlet, you’re in luck: Though Bedford Falls may be fictional (albeit inspired by Seneca Falls, New York), America is filled with wintry villages that are keeping that small-town holiday spirit alive. Here, five places to ring in the Christmas season, from a Bavarian-inspired burgh in Washington State to a Colorado mining town with a Polar Express-themed train excursion.
Nestled in a valley in the Cascade Mountains, this Bavarian-inspired village—about 20 miles from Wenatchee—could almost be mistaken for a scene inside a snow globe. The former timber town hits its stride come December, thanks to a slew of attractions such as a reindeer farm and a world-renowned nutcracker museum. (The museum is temporarily closed, but you can still stock up in the gift shop, where you’ll find nutcrackers modeled after snowboarders and Seattle Seahawks players.) While the annual Christmas Lighting Festival is on pause, the village will still sparkle with more than a half-million lights through February.
Each winter, this historic mining town just north of the New Mexico border transforms its 1882 narrow-gauge railroad into The Polar Express, whisking guests on a magical, musical ride that culminates in a Santa meet and greet. Explore the snowy Rocky Mountain surroundings on a dogsled or horse-drawn carriage ride, and then pick up locally made gifts at the Winter Solstice Artisans’ Market.
This little slice of Bavaria a half-hour drive from Flint is home to the world’s largest year-round Christmas store, Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. Set on 27 acres dotted with three 17-foot-tall Santa statues, the store itself covers 1.7 football fields and sells more than 8,000 styles of ornaments and 250 varieties of Nativity scenes. Before you visit, check the town website for a holiday lights driving map—the tour whisks visitors past more than two dozen stops, including the 40-foot Zehnder Park tree, for the perfect socially distanced spin around town.
Santa Claus, Indiana
Originally called Santa Fe, this Southern Indiana town, about 70 miles west of Louisville, Kentucky, was forced to change its name in 1856 when its residents applied for a post office and found out there already was a Santa Fe. Their cheeky new name stuck, and the post office still factors into holiday traditions here: People from around the world send 400,000 pieces of mail to the town each December to have it canceled with a festive postmark designed by a local high school student. Today, the town is an overstuffed stocking of kitschy roadside attractions, including Santa’s Toys, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari theme park and the 85-year-old Santa’s Candy Castle.
Less than one hour from Richmond, the Colonial Williamsburg living museum offers a glimpse into 18th- and 19th-century Christmastide traditions. Listen to musicians play carols on fiddles and hammered dulcimers, or take a walking tour to see the evocative—if not entirely historically accurate—decorations, made with fresh and dried fruits, pine cone and evergreen boughs. For a 21st-century celebration, head to Busch Gardens, where the theme park’s limited-capacity festivities will include gingerbread funnel cakes, distanced Santa meet and greets and dazzling light displays, which incorporate some 10 million lights in a normal year.