Is there a better time for a day trip than the holiday season? Yuletide adds luster to the most ordinary sites, but in Williamsburg and Alexandria, Va., in the sleepy towns of Lancaster County, Pa., and in the outposts of West Virginia, Christmastime has special appeal.
A Grand Illumination heralds the season in Colonial Williamsburg on Dec. 6. Thousands of visitors will gather in the historic area at dusk to watch the spectacle. Single white candles are lighted simultaneously in the windows of each house, while 18th-century fireworks are set ablaze at the Governor's Palace, Capitol and Magazine.
It is a tradition that goes back 200 years. A military tattoo by the Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps precedes the illumination, along with musical entertainment on four stages. The celebration continues through the first of the year with candlelight concerts at the Governor's Palace, dancing at the Raleigh Tavern, period vocal music at the Capitol, 18th-century plays and other events. Call (800) HISTORY.
Alexandria is another town that goes all out to celebrate the holidays. Here the season gets under way Dec. 5 with the traditional Scottish Christmas Walk, a parade of tartan-clad clansmen, bagpipe bands, Scottish breed dogs, antique cars and floats, beginning at 10:30 a.m. The parade is a salute to the town's Scottish heritage.
Afterward, hot spiced cider and food will be on sale on Market Square. Some of the area's finest craftspeople will be there, too, to sell their handmade gift items.
Also that day, several homes in Old Town will open their doors to the public for a holiday homes tour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $15. The day concludes with a Christmas ceilidh, a traditional Scottish party in private homes and the Belle Haven Country Club. The event is open to the public. Call (703) 549-0111.
The annual Old Town Christmas Candlelight Tour Dec. 11-13 is another popular event. Three of Alexandria's historic homes -- the Carlyle House, the Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee and the Lee-Fendall House -- will be open for tour with period decorations and musical entertainment. Refreshments will be served at Gadsby's Tavern, an 18th-century establishment frequented by George Washington. The tour runs from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and an afternoon tour will be offered on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $12 for adults; $5 for ages 6 to 17. Call (703) 838-4200.
Christmas in Lancaster County has a different character. An evening Candlelight Tour at Hans Herr House, Lancaster's oldest home, is scheduled Dec. 4 and 5 from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Guests are transported by a Conestoga wagon drawn by oxen from the museum visitor center to the house.
Inside they can glimpse holiday life of the early Mennonites. A Christmas story is read in German, traditional food is cooked over the open hearth and offered for sampling, and demonstrations are performed by a coppersmith, weaver and other craftsmen. Outside, guests can sip hot spiced cider and sing carols around a bonfire. Admission is $4 for adults; $1 for ages 7 to 12. Call (717) 464-4438.
Mount Hope Estate and Winery in Cornwall, Pa., offers a Charles Dickens Christmas Past on weekends through Dec. 27. Guests will find themselves in the company of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Miss Haversham and Scrooge, as costumed actors bring Dickens' classic tales to life. There will also be readings, caroling, Victorian parlor games and hot mulled wine.
Performance times are 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Fridays; noon, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $8.95 for adults; $5 for children. Reservations are required. Call (717) 665-7021.
In the village of Strasburg, Pa., visitors can board the Strasburg Rail Road's "Santa Train" to Paradise, Pa. The train, made up of authentic wooden coaches pulled by a steam locomotive, rumbles through the scenic countryside with St. Nick on board. The dates are Dec. 5, 6, 12, 13, 19 and 20. Call for times and reservations, (717) 687-7522.
While in Strasburg, check out the holiday offerings at the Toy Train Museum, the Gast Classic Motorcars Museum and the Sight & Sound Entertainment Centre. Also, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania will present Home for the Holidays: A Christmas Lantern Tour Dec. 12 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The museum will adopt the atmosphere of a railroad terminal of 50 years ago, with museum volunteers portraying engineers, firemen and conductors.
Many of the museum's railroad locomotives and passenger cars, which date back to the Civil War, will be open to the public. Tickets cost $3 for adults; $2 for children; and include complimentary refreshments. Call (717) 687-8628.
A Candlelight Christmas in Chadds Ford, Pa., on Dec. 5 is always a treat. At Brandywine Battlefield Park, Revolutionary War soldiers escort visitors across the luminaria-lighted battlefield to the Gideon Gilpin House (Lafayette's Quarters). The house was recently restored, and on this night offers living history vignettes and sweets of the period.
Also open are the 1725 John Chads House and the Barn, with decorations of dried herbs and flowers, glimpses of 18th-century winter activities, and Colonial foods to sample; the Brinton 1704 House; and two private homes: the Big Bend, a manor house of miller William Twaddell in the 1780s, now privately owned, and the Log House at Hill Girt Farm, another privately owned home, which has a log section dating from the late 17th century. The self-guided driving tour runs from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets cost $10 for adults; $4 for 12 and under. Call (215) 388-7376 or (215) 459-3342.
Each year about 6,000 visitors find the charms of Odessa, Del., irresistible. Houses are draped in greenery, windows glow with candlelight, and there's the pungent aroma of fresh pine mingled with spices. Christmas in Odessa is scheduled Dec. 5 and 6. Private homes, public buildings and historic house museums of the Odessa-Winterthur properties will be dressed for the holidays and open for tour.
A daytime bus tour of country properties will be held Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Odessa's town homes can be seen by candlelight Saturday evening from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and a self-guided walking tour of town houses is scheduled on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets for each tour cost $10; $8 for nTC students.
In addition to the tours, a Christmas craft shop will be installed in the fire hall, offering items ranging from folk art to 18th-century reproductions. There will also be musical programs, a Christmas green's sale, demonstrations and other activities throughout the two-day event. Odessa is off U.S. 13 between Wilmington and Dover. Call (302) 378-4900.
Delectable gingerbread houses, a large train set covering several rooms and a life-size rocking horse are among the features of the eighth annual Holiday House Tour, sponsored by the Delaware Art Museum Council Dec. 5 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eight private homes in the Wilmington area, including the 1989 Designer Showcase home and two artists' studios, will be open for tour.
Tour participants are invited to a holiday lunch with musical entertainment at the museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, from noon to 2 p.m. While at the museum, you can visit the display of gingerbread houses, imaginative creations by professional chefs. Tour tickets cost $15; lunch is $8. Call (302) 571-9590.
Travel across the mountains to West Virginia and find an Olde Tyme Christmas in Harpers Ferry Dec. 4-6 and 11-13. The celebration begins as costumed town folk gather for the traditional lighting of the yule log. A procession of bell ringers, led by the town crier, carries the yule light through town. Next, there is music by a brass ensemble, a choir and madrigal singers, concluding with a Mass and living nativity scene at St. Peter's Church.
The following day, the celebration features street performers, tree trimming, games and taffy pulls for children, hot wassail, ghost tours and many other activities. The hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Call (304) 535-2627.
Spirit of Christmas in the Mountains, Dec. 5, 6, 12 and 13, takes travelers back to the late 1700s, when Scotch-Irish and German immigrants settled around Salem, W.Va. At Fort Salem, a re-created frontier log house community, the traditions of these early settlers continue. Craft skills of the mountain folk are
practiced at the shops of the blacksmith, woodworker, printer, spinner and weaver.
You'll also see preparation of special foods, entertainment ranging from madrigal singers to dulcimer players, puppeteers and old-fashioned string bands.
Belsnicking is also practiced here, as costumed and masked revelers go from house to house to demand attention and favors.
The highlight of each day's program is the tree-lighting ceremony on the fort's central green. Carols are sung as hundreds of hand-dipped candles are lighted on the large tree. Hours are 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. The settlement is on U.S. 50, 12 miles west of Clarksburg, W.Va., at Junction 23. Call (304) 782-5245.
Don't overlook the holiday fare in the nation's capital, which begins with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in President's Park on Dec. 10. The tree lighting opens the Pageant Peace Festival, which continues through New Year's Day on the grounds of the Ellipse (across from the White House).
The Coast Guard Band opens the ceremonies at 5 p.m. with Lucie Arnaz acting as hostess. Willard Scott will again appear as Santa. Also on the program are country singer Lee Greenwood, Keshia Knight Pulliam from "The Cosby Show," the Children's Chorus of Maryland, and members of the cast of "A Christmas Carol," which is playing at Ford's Theater during the holidays.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, President Bush will deliver his Christmas message and light the tree. The tree is flanked by 57 smaller ones, each decorated in appropriate themes to represent a state or territory of the United States. The area is known as the "Pathway of Peace." The site also features choral concerts each night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., a nativity scene and a burning yule log. The trees remain lighted through Jan. 1. Admission is free. Call (202) 619-7222.