The City Magazine Since 1975

How to Embrace the Holiday Season in the Holy City

Written By Molly Ramsey

The holiday spirit shines bright in the Holy City. Here are dozens of ways you can embrace the season this year

Holiday Festival of Lights

With more than two million glimmering lights to behold along a winding three-mile drive, the Holiday Festival of Lights at James Island County Park is sure to wow, whether it’s your first year visiting or your 34th. Admire the 750-plus displays from the comfort of your car, or park and hop aboard the Festival Express “train,” ride the antique carousel, grab a snack or s’mores kit in Santa’s Village, and snap a pic with St. Nick himself. On December 3 & 10 (10 a.m.-2 p.m.), Santa will be available for inclusive visits in a calm and quiet atmosphere; he’ll also be in town for group daytime visits on Saturdays in December (advance registration required for both). New this year, you can pre-purchase tickets online to snag a discount, and rates will vary by date based on expected crowd levels (visit their site to purchase ahead). Through December 31, 5:30-10 p.m.; $15-$40 per car (with food, drinks, and additional experiences available for sale within the festival);

Nights of a Thousand Candles

Up for a drive? Turn on the holiday tunes and cruise north on Highway 17 to Brookgreen Gardens, the sculpture-filled botanical gardens near Murrells Inlet. There, you’ll find the landscape set aglow by thousands of hand-lit candles and millions of twinkling lights for the 24th annual Nights of a Thousand Candles—a holiday light show that Travel + Leisure has crowned the best in the Palmetto State. Snag some hot cider or spirits from beverage stations throughout the park, or join for the nightly “Lighting of the Trees” ceremony at 6:45 p.m. at the Leonard Pavilion. November 25-December 31, Wednesdays-Sundays, 4-9 p.m.; $35; $17 for children;

Aquarium Aglow

Glowing jellyfish, neon turtles, and “Scuba Claus” swimming alongside sharks: you’ll see all this and more at the South Carolina Aquarium’s Aquarium Aglow event. On select nights in November and December, you can visit after hours to peep aquatic animals, enjoy the splendor of marine-themed light displays, sip festive beverages, and track down the scuba-diving Santa. Select dates from November 16-December 30; prices vary; 

Cougar Night Lights

Whether you’re a College of Charleston undergrad or not, you’ll want to stop by Cistern Yard. For the seventh year running, Randolph Hall and the surrounding live oaks will be lit with thousands of lights, all blinking in rhythm with seasonal tunes. The 30-minute light show—produced and designed by Emmy Award-winning CofC alumnus John Reynolds (whose resume includes the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Super Bowl)—runs nightly from December 5 to January 1 (dusk to 9 p.m.) and is free and open to the public. 

Spread the Joy

As you’re out and about this season, look for eight-foot signs that read “JOY,” “HOPE,” and “LOVE.” Installed by Explore Charleston as a way to spread smiles, you’ll spot the golden, glowing displays throughout the Lowcountry, from downtown (Cistern Yard, Gaillard Center, and Marion Square) and Kiawah Island (Freshfields Village), to North Charleston (Visitors Center and the airport’s main lobby) and beyond. To spread cheer on social, snap a photo with the display and post it with #SpreadTheJoy. Thanksgiving to mid-January; find a map of locations at

Marion Square

Want to tap into childlike wonder or elicit awe from your littles? Stand at the center of Marion Square and look up through the center of the tree-shaped cone of colored lights. It’s a low-hassle, high-reward (and free!) dose of holiday cheer that will be on display—along with other dazzling lights in the square—from December 3 through the New Year. Want a first look at this year’s lights? Gather in Marion Square at dusk on December 3 for the tree-lighting ceremony, which takes place directly after the holiday parade downtown.

Light the Lake

A light show, a community movie screening, a live performance by Charleston Caroling Company, and a celebration of loved ones no longer with us—Light the Lake delivers feel-good holiday magic in more ways than one. Hosted by the Charleston Parks Conservancy, this annual event will take place on December 1 at Colonial Lake downtown. Walk the pathways illuminated with Mason-jar luminaries (you can dedicate one for $35). You’ll also see the lake’s beloved light tree come to life for the season and can cozy up for a free holiday movie screening afterward. Food, drinks, and artist vignettes will be available for purchase. December 1, 5 to 9 p.m., free. Proceeds from purchases support the Charleston Parks Conservancy;

The Charleston Place

Multiple stops are a must at this Holy City hub for holiday cheer, including nightly “snowfalls,” a dazzling 40-foot tree in Market Street Circle, and 300 feet of toy train track winding through the lobby. This year, the decor (designed by The Drifter) and events are Nutcracker-themed, so expect oversize soldiers standing at attention, pop-up ballet performances by the Dance Conservatory of Charleston (dubbed “The Snowflake March,” these will take place in the lobby Wednesdays from 5:30 to 6 p.m.), Nutcracker tea parties, and even a Nutcracker dance workshop for your little elves. Many festivities are complimentary and open to the public, including the snowfalls (though reservations are required), holiday train viewing, and The Snowflake March, with hot cocoa, nutcracker cookies, and more treats for sale on-site. November 24-December 31; 

The Sanctuary

Celebrate the holidays shoreside with a visit to the posh hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Sip a festive spirit—ideally fireside, or in the shadow of their soaring, sparkling tree—in the lobby bar, or indulge in an over-the-top holiday milkshake (or spiked shake) at Beaches and Cream, the on-site ice cream parlor. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a show by Victorian attire-clad carolers, who will be strolling through the halls and restaurants from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays in December. And you can’t leave without catching a glimpse of pastry chef Jordan Snider’s dazzling holiday sculpture crafted entirely out of chocolate. November 25-December 31;

Hotel Bennett

How much sugar does it take to craft a life-size gingerbread house? Hotel Bennett’s executive pastry chef Remy Funfrock can tell you (the recipe includes 10 pounds of marshmallows, 10 pounds of candy canes, 95 pounds of gummy bears, 105 pounds of Rice Krispies, and 364 feet of licorice rope). The awe-inspiring confection debuted last year, and it’ll be back this holiday season. Order hot cocoa from that sweet shack, then soak up holiday decor throughout the lobby and outdoors on Gabrielle Plaza, where, on December 7 at 5:30 p.m., you can join for the tree-lighting ceremony complete with yuletide tunes and surprises from Mr. C himself (the ceremony is complimentary and open to the public). Other merry events include holiday teas at Camellias and breakfasts with Santa in the Crown Ballroom (December 23 & 24, 9-11:30 a.m.). November 25-December 24;

Wild Dunes

While snow’s unlikely this month, sand’s a sure thing. Head to the Isle of Palms to see glittering garlands and trimmed trees, all set to the oceanfront resort’s beachy backdrop. The Laughing Gull Restaurant & Bar, located atop the resort’s Sweetgrass Inn, will transform into Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Santa Tiki Bar, where you can drink extravagant cocktails served in kitschy Christmas mugs. Visit Sweetgrass Plaza on December 7 to cross names off your list at the pop-up Holiday Market, or on December 23 at 5 p.m. with the kiddos for milk, cookies, and stories with Santa (tickets required). November 20-December 31; 

The Dewberry

The Living Room at The Dewberry is always a smart place to grab a cocktail or mocktail; during the festive season, however, it’s a must. Every year, the luxury inn teams with a new creative to bring to life an artful holiday design for the sumptuous lobby bar, where you can order a specialty spirit inspired by the decor. Last year, New York-based floral designer Lewis Miller dressed the space—and its Fraser fir focal point—in vibrant-hued florals. Don’t miss this year’s original look dreamed up by Schumacher or the hotel’s entrance festively adorned in Arteriors’ sputnik lighting. December 1–January 1;

Nathaniel Russell House

What did holidays in the Holy City look like pre-electricity? The Nathaniel Russell House invites you to find out during their 45-minute candlelight tours. Sip hot apple cider, fashion a fragrant pomander ball (oranges studded with cloves), and tour the decked-out 1808 manse while learning how the Russell family and the enslaved men and women who worked at the home would have observed the Christmas season. December 13-16; $45 (advance ticket required);

Joseph Manigault House

Take a jolly tour through the circa-1803 Joseph Manigault House, where you’ll find seasonal arrangements—starring only flora that would’ve been available at the start of the 19th century—courtesy of the Garden Club of Charleston. The decor will be on display during the museum’s daily tours (10 a.m.-5 p.m.); however, if you’re looking for some extra festive fun, join for the holiday decorations kick-off party on December 2 (1-5 p.m.). In addition to getting a first peek at this year’s artful arrangements, you’ll enjoy yuletide tunes (including a performance by the Charleston Caroling Company from 2-3 p.m.) and refreshments. December 2-27; $15;

Boone Hall Plantation

Head east of the Cooper River, where this historical home will be brimming with poinsettias, wreaths, and Fraser firs decorated with themed baubles—look out for one trimmed in sweetgrass ornaments and another decked out in berries and cotton grown on-site. And on December 13 (7:30-9:15 p.m.), join for A Gullah Christmas Concert, complete with holiday stories and songs, as well as hot cocoa, cider, and sweets. December 4-January 1; house tours ($25; $12 for kids; free for ages five and under) & concert ($30; $15 for ages three-17); 

Middleton Place

History lovers can take part in an immersive—and tasty—holiday experience during Middleton Place’s Grand Illumination and Dinner. Stroll through the house museum and torch-lit gardens as actors relive the Christmas of 1782, celebrating the end of the Revolutionary War and the return of Arthur Middleton to Charleston. Afterward, make merry with others over a hearty seasonal feast. December 13-16, 6-8 p.m.; $99; $35 for ages six-13; free for children five and under (advance tickets required);

Toast to the Season

The Ryder Hotel’s Little Pine Bar
The Ryder’s poolside Little Palm bar will again transform into the Little Pine, a winter wonderland replete with twinkling trees, oversized ornament pool floats, and seasonal food and spirits.

Harold’s Cabin White Christmas 
A Westside favorite year-round, Harold’s Cabin is not to be missed come the holidays. Sip eggnog in the Pickled Beat lounge amid sparkling lights and baubles.

Sippin’ Santa at Prohibition
The Upper King Street bar’s “falala-famed” pop-up returns with over-the-top decor and an array of festive cocktails served in signature Christmas mugs and glassware.

Walking Tours

Stroll past festive façades while soaking up historic tidbits along the way

Walk & Talk Charleston: Saturdays in December; $35;

Bulldog Tours Holiday Strolls: December 5-30; $45, $35 for kids ages four to 12;


Photographs courtesy of the hotels; Wayne’s View Photography; courtesy of Brookgreen Gardens; Keen Eye Marketing; Richard Ellis; courtesy of Charleston Parks Conservancy; Mike Ledford; courtesy of SC Aquarium; College of Charleston; Explore Charleston; courtesy of The Charleston Place; Leslie Ryann McKellar; Peter Frank Edwards; courtesy of Hotel Bennett; Andrew Cebulka; courtesy of The Ryder Hotel; Kim Graham; courtesy of Historic Charleston Foundation; courtesy of The Charleston Museum; courtesy of Boone Hall Plantation; Middleton Place; Bulldog Tours