ATLANTA CHRISTMAS EVENTS
A Guide to Our Top 20 Annual Favorites
Updated for 2016
Everyone knows that we’re passionate about ecotourism and nature conservation.
But unless you’re a long-time reader, you might not know that our family is equally mad about Christmas. From mid-November right up through Christmas Eve, we make a point of attending as many Atlanta Christmas events as we possibly can.
We won’t even travel in the weeks before the holidays, to make sure we have ample quality time to celebrate the season!
What follows is a list of our Top 20 annual Atlanta Christmas events, from concerts and theatrical performances to fundraising parties and parades:
ATLANTA BALLET’S NUTCRACKER (Fox Theatre, Dec 9-24)
The Atlanta Ballet’s annual production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece has been an integral part of the city’s holiday season for over 40 years now. The show tells the timeless tale of young Clara Stahlbaum, who awakes at midnight on Christmas Eve to find her prized Nutcracker toy has come to life to do battle with the Mouse King’s army. From dancing snowflakes to lively Russian nesting dolls, the extravagant production is sure to prove a hit with youthful spirits ages 8 to 80.
CHILDREN’S CHRISTMAS PARADE (Peachtree St in Midtown, Dec 3)
If you can’t make it to the Big Apple for NYC’s legendary Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, this annual event benefiting Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is a scaled-down, free alternative. Peachtree St is magically transformed into “Santa Claus Lane,” with dozens of floats, giant balloon characters, and marching bands, making this the largest Christmas parade in the Southeast. But of course the main attraction is the arrival of Jolly Ol’ St Nick himself, ringing in the heart of Atlanta’s holiday season.
CHRISTMAS AT CALLANWOLDE (Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, Through Dec 13)
We’re huge supporters of the Atlanta cultural community, and Callanwolde is one of the city’s most storied arts organizations. Their annual fundraiser finds the 27,000-sq ft Late Gothic Revival mansion– which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973– decked out in fancy boughs of holly and fa la la by top interior and floral designers. With tours of the mansion, live performances, shopping and seasonal workshops, it’s a swanky way to welcome in the holiday season.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Alliance Theatre, Nov 25-Dec 24)
Now in its 26th year, the Alliance’s production of Dickens’ timeless classic features Broadway-style stage design, beloved Christmas carols, and some of Atlanta’s finest thespians. We still miss Atlanta theatre icon Chris Kayser in his longtime role playing Ebenezer Scrooge, the tight-fisted, cold-hearted miser who is haunted by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. But with an all-Atlanta cast and beautiful live music, this Broadway-scale production remains an impressive rendering of this perennial holiday favorite.
CHRISTMAS WITH THE ASO (Symphony Hall, Dec 9 & Dec 10)
Robert Shaw was a titan in the classical world, winning 14 Grammys, 1991 Kennedy Center Honors, and the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever awarded to a conductor. “Christmas With The ASO” was the holiday-loving legend’s gift to Atlanta, and this year marks the show’s 48th anniversary. Conductor Norman Mackenzie will lead the ASO Chorus, Morehouse College Glee Club, and Gwinnett Young Singers through Shaw’s 4-part musical take on the story of Christmas. If the sound of 400+ singers and musicians working in tandem doesn’t invigorate your holiday spirit, you may want to check your pulse.
CIRQUE DE LA SYMPHONIE (Symphony Hall, Dec 20-21)
As the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s budget cuts have forced it to evolve with the times, their holiday offerings have evolved quite a bit in recent years. Gone are hoary chestnuts such as the Gospel Christmas and Handel’s Messiah, replaced by Home Alone screenings and symphonic circuses. Old school traditionalists may balk at the notion of pairing beloved holiday classics with dexterous jugglers, ridiculous clowns and the incredulous sight of acrobats flying high above conductor Michael Palmer and the ASO. But, in our era of increasingly short attention spans, that’s entertainment!
FANTASY IN LIGHTS (Callaway Gardens, Nov 18-Jan 7)
Rated by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 Christmas Light Displays in the World, Callaway Gardens’ Fantasy In Lights is truly a wondrous sight to behold. The centerpiece is a 5-mile drive lined with 8 million lights, divided thematically into 14 sections that include “Snowflake Valley” and “Magical Christmas Garden,” with festive Christmas music playing throughout. There are also narrated scenes of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Nativity; a Christmas Village offering holiday gifts and collectibles, food and photo ops with Santa and Rudolph; and a “Jolly Trolley” tour for those who’d prefer not to drive their own cars.
FESTIVAL OF THE SEASON (Georgia Aquarium, Nov 19-Jan 1)
The world’s largest aquarium hosts a month of holiday-themed events that magically transforms its plaza, galleries and exhibits into a glistening winter wonderland. Visitors can get into the spirit of the SEAson with the Holidazzle light show and 3D projection show, The Sea Around Us, shown in the atrium every hour. Other activities include the underwater entertainment show SCUBA Claus, Holiday Deepo’s Chat and the Underwater Menorah.
GARDEN NIGHTS, HOLIDAY LIGHTS (Atlanta Botanical Garden, through Jan 7)
This annual celebration of the season brightens the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s 30 acres with 1 million colorful LED lights. All of the garden’s pathways will be lit up, with stars shining down from the canopies of hardwood trees, teal and blue lights illuminating a stretch of crepe myrtles, and a 27-foot-tall tree next to a fountain that reflects the twinkling lights in enchanting patterns. There’s a strong nature theme throughout, as guests walk past giant snowflakes, bumblebees, and a huge “praying Santa mantis” while listening to strolling carolers and sipping hot cocoa or tea.
GIFT OF LIGHTS (Atlanta Motor Speedway, through Jan 4)
Billing itself as Georgia’s largest LED holiday light show, the Gift of Lights is celebrating its fourth year of transforming Atlanta Motor Speedway into a magical winter wonderland filled with flying reindeer, dancing light tunnels and dozens of moving displays. The experience begins with a 2-mile drive-through journey leading to Santa’s Village, where kids can pose for pics with St. Nick while their parents squeeze in some holiday shopping. There’s also a carnival featuring popular rides, prize-winning games, food provided by Tannery Row Ale House and hot cocoa and snow cones provided by Kona Ice.
HOLIDAY IN LIGHTS (Centennial Olympic Park, Nov 19-Jan 1)
You’d have a better chance of finding ice cubes in Hades than you would of seeing snow in Atlanta on Christmas. But Centennial Olympic Park’s annual holiday celebration gives kids of all ages a chance to strap on their skates and take a spin on the city’s only outdoor ice-skating rink, with theatrical lighting and festive holiday music to set the wintry mood. The 21-acre park is also festooned with thousands of twinkling lights and a huge Christmas tree, with its stunning view of the city skyline making it a picturesque place for a nighttime stroll.
LIGHTING OF MACY’S GREAT TREE (Macy’s Lenox Square, Thanksgiving Day)
Though the name and location of the store have changed over the years, this annual celebration of the beginning of the Christmas season has otherwise been the same for 65 years now. It all began in 1948, when Rich’s department store put a large pine tree atop its flagship downtown Atlanta location, lighting it on Thanksgiving night. The famous Pink Pig monorail ride was added in 1953, and returned as a more conventional train ride in 2004. Though Rich’s and Macy’s merged in 2006, the annual lighting of the Great Tree remains one of Atlanta’s most beloved and historic holiday traditions.
MAGICAL LIGHTS (Lake Lanier Islands, through Dec 31)
This winter wonderland offers enough more than enough holiday joy to get Scrooge and the Grinch into the Christmas spirit. Billed as the world’s largest light extravaganza, Magical Nights of Lights features a 7-mile drive filled with colorful themed displays such as “The 12 Days of Christmas.” At the end you’ll find an impressive array of carnival rides and games, blazing bonfires for roasting marshmallows, and Santa’s Workshop, where you can meet jolly ol’ St Nick himself!
MERRY %#!*ING CHRISTMAS (Alliance Theatre Hertz Stage, Nov 27–Dec 19)
Breaking from their long-running improvised show, Invasion Christmas Carol, the merry band of misfits from Dad’s Garage unleash a new slice of irreverent holiday hilarity on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage. Co-written by Dad’s Garage Artistic Director Kevin Gillese and Arlen Konopaki, the world-premiere production finds the global economy destabilized by Santa’s gift-giving, global warming threatening to reduce Frosty to a puddle, and Ebenezer Scrooge paired with a lonely single dad to save the world. Irreverent and decidedly un-p.c., this crazy comedy is for adults only.
RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (Center for Puppetry Arts, through Dec 31)
If you grew up loving the Rankin/Bass Christmas special, you’d be forgiven for being skeptical about this stage adaptation of the claymation classic. But director Jon Ludwig and his talented team of puppeteers nail it every year, remaining faithful to the source material while adding some unique production twists that really bring the show to life. From the opening strains of “We Are Santa’s Elves” to the return of the Abominable Snow Monster, this is as “holly jolly” as a Christmas show can get.
THE SANTALAND DIARIES (Horizon Theatre, Nov 18-Dec 31)
Written by the ever-sardonic David Sedaris, this sarcastic satire tells the true-life tale of the author’s lean-times stint as a Macy’s Department Store elf. Originally airing on NPR, this modern holiday classic is filled with bratty kids, overzealous parents, and humiliating costumes. The chaos that ensues provokes the cynical Sedaris’ alter-ego, Crumpet, to deliver a hilarious behind-the-scenes tell-all that reveals what happens when St. Nick and his helpers stop being polite and start being real. In short, leave the kids at home.
STONE MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS (Stone Mountain Park, through Jan 4)
This annual celebration at Stone Mountain Park is one of our family’s favorite holiday traditions. For 6 weeks the Crossroads village is lit up by 2 million lights, and the mountain’s famous carving is illuminated by a Christmas-themed laser show (hot chocolate and roasted marshmallows optional). There are also nightly Christmas parades featuring Santa and Mrs. Claus, sing-along train rides, photo ops with a beautiful Snow Angel and, new this year, Rudolph and Abominable Snow Monster costumed characters.
A VERY MERRY HOLIDAY POPS (Symphony Hall, Dec 16 & 17)
Principal Pops conductor Michael Krajewski is understandably excited about this year’s Holiday Pops concert, which will feature the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Artist-in-Residence bass Morris Robinson and the All City High-School Chorus along with special guest Capathia Jenkins. The Brooklyn-bred Jenkins has made her mark on Broadway (Newsies, The Civil War) and film (Chicago, Top Five). Still, she may have a hard time stealing the spotlight from the ASO’s popular jitterbugging Santa.
WINTER WONDERLAND (Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Nov 18-Jan 8)
Now in its sixth year, Fernbank’s Winter Wonderland is one of the best Atlanta Christmas events for families. The exhibition features more than 30 festive trees decorated by a diverse array of cultural partners to reflect holiday traditions from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North America and South America. Saturdays through 12/19 will feature special holiday-themed activities such as performances by the Fil-Am Christmas Carolers and P.A.W.A.G. Filipino Dancers, traditional Chinese Lion dances by the Chien Hung School of Kung Fu, a hands-on Puppet Factory led by the Center for Puppetry Arts, and classic holiday cartoons.
WINTER WONDERLAND ON THE MARIETTA SQUARE (Nov 18-Feb 26)
This new event puts a hip, modern suburban twist on traditional small-town holiday celebrations. The Marietta Square is the center of the action, with an open-air ice skating rink, festive holiday music, thousands of twinkling lights, and visits with Santa at his workshop. But it’s easy to make a day of it, stopping in shops such as Dakota Boutique and Marina Marina Antiques, getting sweet treats from Ye Olde Christmas & Candy Shoppe or Sarah Jean’s Ice Cream, and winding down with a delicious Italian dinner from Piastra Restaurant (try the Gamberi Picatini and Lasagna Quatro Formaggi). We enjoyed our first visit so much, we’re going back to celebrate New Year’s Eve! –Bret Love
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