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LESS THAN A SLEIGH RIDE AWAY Colorful celebrations in neighboring states beckon holiday visitors CHRISTMAS DAYTRIPPING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Getting into the holiday spirit is easy while traveling around the region -- every town, village and hamlet is decked out in its finest seasonal garb.

Urban centers sparkle with giant Christmas trees and glittering lights, and historic houses are dressed in their holiday best. And in some places, the long-forgotten joys of past celebrations bring back memories of simpler pleasures.

You can travel to the Appalachian settlement of Fort New Salem, tucked into the foothills of West Virginia, to find the Spirit of Christmas in the Mountains, today and next Saturday and Sunday. Reconstructed as a frontier settlement of the 19th century, the 20 log buildings are simply dressed with sprays of greens.

On the fort's central green stands a Christmas tree, and each day it is lit with hundreds of hand-dipped candles as choirs sing carols.

Traditional craft skills of the mountain folk continue to be practiced here at the shops of the blacksmith, woodworker, printer, spinner and weaver. Adding to the celebrations are a visit from Der Belsnickel, a mischievous German Santa; hot wassail and sweets; and the music of fiddlers, dulcimer players, an old-fashioned string band and other musicians. The settlement is on U.S. 50, 12 miles west of Clarksburg, W.Va. Call (304) 782-5245.

Interested in the Civil War? Visit an Old Tyme Christmas, which recalls holiday celebrations of that era, today and Friday to next Sunday in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Activities begin with the lighting of the yule log. Each shopkeeper lights a candle from its flame as it is carried through the street.

A Civil War encampment and a sutler's camp occupy one end of town, and in another area a children's tent offers old-fashioned fun. Musical entertainment, period costumes and Old St. Nicholas are other attractions at the celebration. Call (304) 535-2729.

More than 1 million people visit the Oglebay Winter Festival of Lights in Wheeling, W.Va., annually, making this event the state's biggest tourist attraction. Two hundred acres at Oglebay Park are transformed with lighted exhibits, representing the 12 days of Christmas, the nativity, cathedrals of the world, snowmen and wooden soldiers.

There is no charge to drive through the park. The festival runs daily from dusk until 11 p.m. through Feb. 2 and weekends through March 1. Oglebay Mansion is also open for tour daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The 16-room mansion is decorated for Christmas and features a train display. There is an admission charge to tour the mansion. Call (304) 243-4000.

A Williamsburg Christmas

Across the border in Virginia, a Grand Illumination launches the season in Colonial Williamsburg today. The music of the fife and drum corps is followed by 18th century-style fireworks at the Governor's Palace, Magazine and Capitol, a signal for the traditional lighting of candles in the homes and shops of the Historic Area.

During the evening, musicians and entertainers will perform on four outdoor stages. Admission is free. The season continues through New Year's with candlelight concerts and recitals, holiday lectures, films and decorating workshops, tours of the Historic Area, plays, banquets and other programs. Call (800) HISTORY.

For the first time in several years, the National Historic Landmark Village of Waterford, Va., is holding a holiday celebration, Christmas in Waterford, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today.

The village lamplighter and town crier bring news of the day, as carolers and holiday musicians stroll the village streets and ponies are decked out with bells and ribbons. In the village center you can watch as candles are hand-dipped over an open fire or see herbal wreaths being made while sipping hot mulled cider.

To reach the village, take U.S. 15 south, turn west on Route 7 for 5 miles past Leesburg, then right on Route 9 for 1 mile and right again on Route 662. Call (703) 882-3018.

The annual Christmas Candlelight Tour is scheduled in Old Town Alexandria, Va., on Friday and Saturday from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The tour begins at the Ramsay House Visitors Center, 221 King St., with a bagpipe performance, a reminder of Alexandria's Scottish heritage.

The tour proceeds to the Carlyle House, the Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee and the Lee-Fendall House, where madrigal singers, instrumentalists and other musicians will perform. The evening concludes with light refreshments at Gadsby's Tavern Museum. Tickets cost $12 for adults, $5 for ages 6 to 17. Call (703) 838-4200.

Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, Va., will hold Christmas Candlelight Tours Dec. 14-22. The house will be decked with live greens for a traditional Victorian Christmas. Each evening a musical group or storyteller will entertain in the upstairs parlor, and guests will be served complimentary spiced tea and cookies.

Hours are 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $3.50 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for ages 6 to 12, free for under 6. Belle Grove is on U.S. 11, south of Middletown. Call (703) 869-2028.

Capitol holiday display

Head for the nation's capital to see the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on Thursday. The tree lighting opens the Pageant of Peace Festival, which continues Friday to Dec. 23 and Dec. 26-30, on the grounds of the Ellipse (across from the White House). The U.S. Navy Band opens the ceremonies at 5 p.m., and Willard Scott, as Santa, will conduct a sing-along.

Other performers are the Tucson (Ariz.) Boys Choir, Marilyn Horne, Joe Williams and Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers. The ceremony concludes with a Christmas message by President Bush and the lighting of the tree at 6 p.m.

The National Tree is flanked by smaller trees, each decorated in an appropriate theme to represent a state or territory of the United States. The grounds are also the site of nightly choral concerts from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., a nativity scene and burning yule log. A hot drink and refreshments are served during the first week. The trees remain lit through Jan. 1. Admission is free. Call (202) 619-7222.

"Whistle Stop Holidays" is the theme of the 37th annual Christmas Greens Exhibition at the U.S. Botanic Gardens in Washington, which opens Tuesday and continues through Jan. 5. The exhibition depicts the era of the great trains from 1920 to 1945.

You'll find a simulated railroad car decorated for the holidays in the Orangery, a railroad station featuring a tree trimmed with railroad symbols and memorabilia from each state in the East Gallery and "Hometown, U.S.A.," a scene that includes a train's observation platform and a view of a small town with its general store and town park in the West Gallery.

Holiday demonstrations are offered Tuesday to Saturday of this week. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to next Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 16-20 and 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21 to Jan. 5. Admission is free. The U.S. Botanic Garden is on Maryland Avenue and First Street Southwest. Call (202) 226-4082.

White House Candlelight Tours will take place Dec. 26-28 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. You can visit the beautifully decorated main State Rooms of the White House while military bands play Christmas )) music. Admission is by free ticket. Lines form on East Executive Avenue. Call (202) 456-2200.

Re-creating holidays past

"Yuletide at Winterthur" is one of Delaware's premier events. Winterthur Museum and Gardens on Route 52 near Wilmington hosts holiday tours through Jan. 5. The tour takes you through decorated rooms that re-create winter holiday celebrations of early America.

Tours are available 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 7 p.m. Sundays; evening tours are Tuesday to Thursday of this week from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is $9 for adults, $4.50 for children under 17 (day tours), $12.50 for adults, $6 for under 17 (evening tours). Call (302) 888-4600 or (800) 448-3883.

Christmas at the Hagley, site of the original du Pont mills, contrasts holiday celebrations in the workers' community on Blacksmith Hill to those in the lavishly decorated home of the du Pont family, Eleutherian Mills, through Jan. 1. Candlelight tours of the du Pont home are scheduled Dec. 18, 19 and 23 from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Call (302) 658-2400.

Those who visit Rockwood Museum in Wilmington, Del., will experience Christmas as it was 100 years ago. During Victorian Christmas Tours through Dec. 31 each room of the mansion is furnished and decorated in the fashion of the early 1900s.

Tours are available Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. through Dec. 31. Admission is $5 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $2 for ages 5 to 16, free for under 5.

"An Evening with the Bringhurst Family" will be presented Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and next Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Costumed actors will portray family members and servants who lived at Rockwood in the early 1900s. Afterward, hot wassail and light refreshments will be served. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for ages 16 and under. Reservations are $H required. Rockwood is at 610 Shipley Road in Wilmington. Call (302) 761-4340.

One of Delaware's most charming towns can be seen by candlelight Friday and Saturday and Dec. 27-28. Christmas Candlelight Tours in New Castle, Del., will be conducted by costumed interpreters carrying lanterns from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Three house museums, historic churches and the town hall will be on view. The town's decorated shops will be open and serve refreshments. Call (302) 322-8411.

Decorated historic homes

In Philadelphia you can visit Fairmount Park, the world's largest municipal park, where seven of the park's historic houses are open for a Christmas Tour through next Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. These 18th century houses are fully furnished and decorated by Philadelphia-area garden clubs to reflect the theme "A Fantasy of Carols."

Decorations in each house are based on a favorite Christmas song. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children under 12 and NTC free for under 5. Tickets can be purchased at the Philadelphia Art Museum or the Horticulture Center, and the park trolley is available to transport visitors between houses.

The Horticulture Center is decked out as a "Winter Wonderland" and contains a cafe, holiday boutique and poinsettia display. For the first time this year a candlelight tour will be held Thursday by reservation from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Call (215) 787-5449.

A visit to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., will put you in touch with A Brandywine Christmas. You'll find displays of "critter" ornaments, a large model train layout that fills the second-floor gallery, an exhibit of jewelry interpreting works by Andrew Wyeth and seasonal children's book illustrations.

A Brandywine Christmas runs through Jan. 5. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Call (215) 388-7601.

Wheatland, the home of President James Buchanan at 1120 Marietta Ave. in Lancaster, Pa., will depict holiday preparations by the Buchanan family during Victorian Christmas Week at Wheatland, today and Friday to next Sunday.

Tours are scheduled from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays. Call (717) 392-8721.

Two holiday house tours are set in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country on Saturday. Candlelit windows and luminaries will guide visitors through the main street of Churchtown, Pa., a quiet country village, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Two of the eight properties on tour are connected with George Washington, who reportedly visited the Washington Inn and worshiped at Bangor Episcopal Church during his encampment at Valley Forge. Traditional Christmas music will be featured both outdoors and in the Historical Society Building.

Tickets cost $5 and must be purchased in advance. Call (215) 445-4660.

That same day six homes and two historic buildings will be open for tour in Lititz, Pa., from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets will be on sale at the newly acquired Lititz Museum, 145 E. Main St., where you'll find refreshments and a holiday bazaar. Call (717) 626-7752.

Gettysburg's three-day Yuletide Festival begins Friday with a candlelight walk led by Three Wise Men in search of the Christ Child. The walk ends at St. Francis Xavier Church, where there will be a reading of the First Christmas, a handbell choir, carols and a live nativity scene.

Other weekend highlights include a tour of historic houses and buildings on Saturday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and, on Sunday, a dessert sampler that features desserts made by area chefs and entertainment, as well as two Christmas concerts at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call (717) 334-6274.

The mansion at Mount Hope Estate and Winery in Cornwall, Pa., sets the stage for A Charles Dickens Christmas Past Celebration each weekend through Dec. 29. Guests are greeted by actors portraying favorite Dickens characters and other 19th century notables, such as Harry Houdini, Buffalo Bill Cody and Sarah Bernhardt.

Guests are then invited to tour the decorated mansion and join in the Victorian parlor games, tree trimming and carol singing. Adult guests are offered complimentary hot mulled wine and samplings of other wines from the Mount Hope wine cellars.

Performances are scheduled at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Fridays; noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $7.95 for adults, $4 for ages 5 to 11. Reservations are required. Mount Hope is 15 miles north of Lancaster, Pa. Call (717) 665-7021.

Rock Ford Plantation, home of Gen. Edward Hand, George Washington's adjutant general, in Lancaster, Pa., will be dressed for Holiday Candlelight Tours today and Thursday to next Sunday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.

This weekend an art exhibit, "A View of Rock Ford," features paintings of the mansion by local artists, and next weekend there will be craft demonstrations. Musical entertainment is scheduled both weekends. Admission is $3.50 for adults, $2 for students. The mansion is at 881 Rockford Road. Call (717) 392-7223.

Old Bedford Village, the re-created pioneer village in Bedford, Pa., continues its Old Fashioned Christmas today, Saturday and next Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Carolers and a brass quintet stroll the village pathways lit by hundreds of candle luminaries, and each shop and log house is dressed in greens and wreaths.

At the old log church you'll find music and entertainment, and a live nativity scene is displayed in the village farm. Wagon rides are another attraction and the Opera House presents "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever."

Admission to the village is $3 for adults, $2.50 for seniors, $2 for ages 6 to 12. Tickets to the theater production cost $6 for adults, $5.40 for seniors, $4 for those 18 and under. Old Bedford Village is located off the Pennsylvania Turnpike on Business U.S. 220, 1 mile north of Bedford. Call (800) 622-8005.

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