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This South Carolina Town Has Every Christmas Tradition a Southerner Could Want—Including an Ugly Sweater Crawl

- Peter Frank Edwards/Redux
Peter Frank Edwards/Redux

If you want a taste of true Southern merrymaking, look no further.

What makes celebrating Christmas in the South special is the gracious nod to holiday tradition, year after year, whether we’re talking town squares draped in twinkling lights and garland or carols sung at the town tree lighting. For those looking for a taste of these Southern yuletide revelries all wrapped up in a setting prettier than any picture, there’s a small town more than worth the trip: Aiken, South Carolina.

Known already for its iconic archway of live oaks and impressive collection of Thoroughbred champions, Aiken makes Christmas a festive and time-honoring affair. Here, you won’t find tourist traps or horse-themed gimmicks; you’ll find a historic community full of equestrian tradition and small town charm.

The stunning South Carolina town embodies the low and slow way of small-town living; but at Christmastime, it turns up the volume and charm with a holiday extravaganza packed to the brim with festive events that are both community-oriented and welcoming to short-term visitors. If you’re ready to see authentic horse-drawn carriages in the downtown parade or perhaps schedule one of Santa’s elves to tuck in your little ones at bedtime, there might just be something in Aiken for you and your family. Here are some highlights that show why you need to plan a visit to Aiken this year during Christmastime.

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Kick off the season with the annual tree lighting.

It's not officially Christmas in Aiken until the first weekend of December when the massive tree flickers to life on downtown's Newberry Street. The town's cozy shops follow suit with twinkling lights and garland, while storefronts showcase their most cheerful displays and wares. Caroling tops off the evening with some entertainment.

Attend both of the festive parades—full of vintage cars, Thoroughbreds, and more.

Sometimes when your town is serious about the season, just one Christmas parade won’t do. The first weekend of December, attend Aiken’s first Christmas Parade packed with vintage cars, dressed-up dogs, and themed floats. Last year, the parade theme was cheekily declared “Aloha Christmas,” and colorful Hawaiian shirts were parading aplenty. The next weekend, line up to watch a parade of old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages, dressed-up horses with caroling riders, and tinsel-draped dogs. Didn’t bring your own horse to this Thoroughbred-packed town? Reserve a spot on the “Hay Sleigh” to participate.

Vote for “Best in Show”—but this time, not at the horse race.

Ever thought you might be just perfect at judging decorated Christmas trees? Well, here’s your chance. Take a trip to the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum to vote for “Best in Show.” (In this equestrian town, that’s no joke.) Thoughtfully curated (read: over-the-top decorated) Christmas trees are on display and awaiting your verdict.

Experience a real Christmas elf tuck-in at The Willcox.

Book a few nights at stately, but not stuffy hotel, The Willcox; and tailor your stay with as much Christmas cheer as you want. Make your kids’ Christmas season better than ever by booking the hotel’s signature Elf Tuck-In, and watch their faces light up as one of Santa’s elves knocks on the door—milk and cookies in tow—and reads them a bedtime story. Opt in for a festive faux or live Christmas tree in your room for an additional charge, or reserve a one-on-one meeting with Santa on sight. With these yuletide amenities and a spirited atmosphere, The Willcox makes the most of your holiday visit.

Whip out your worst Christmas sweater for the annual Ugly Sweater Crawl. Later, laugh (and vote!) at the Ugly Sweater Exhibit.

Let things get a little ugly during this Ugly Sweater weekend extravaganza. On the second Saturday of December, wear your finest (read: ugliest) Christmas sweater and join in on the downtown scene for shopping, dining, and merrymaking. For those with a particularly extravagant Christmas sweater, submit it to be put on display at the Ugly Sweater Exhibit. Visitors get to tour the ghastly sweater collection and vote for the best of the bunch. (That means it’s time to get out the glue gun and sequins!)

Walk through 1,000 luminaries during the Night of 1,000 Lights.

When it comes to Christmas, Aiken says go big or go home. On the Night of 1,000 Lights, Downtown Aiken is lined with a thousand luminaries that come together to cast a magical glow over the charming streets. The downtown shops stay open late and offer holiday treats, drinks, and music for a fun and festive evening out on the town.

Take a garden tour through miles of twinkling lights during Christmas in Hopelands.

For over 25 years, Christmas in Hopelands has given visitors a magical experience with over 100,000 twinkling lights in the peaceful setting of Hopelands Gardens. Stroll through over two miles of the walk-through exhibit, complete with lighted pathways and illuminated displays. You can purchase s’mores kits on sight to be used at the s’mores pit on the grounds, making it the perfect after-dinner holiday activity. Caroling and live music will stud the month-long exhibit during the weekends, so make sure to bring a blanket!

WATCH: Why You Really Need to Plan a Visit to Dahlonega, Georgia This Christmas

It’s hard to be this South’s best small town when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Make this year the most festive yet by grabbing your family and heading to Aiken for some true Southern merrymaking. Check out a full itinerary here.

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