While it's not always a snowy Christmas in the South, that doesn't mean the decorations are any less impressive than in New England, or the magic any less than in the North Pole. After all, this is the region that gave us Paula Deen and Mardi Gras, bourbon whiskey and the Sugar Bowl. Southern hospitality is legendary, and there's no better time to experience it than the winter holiday season.
By Lena Katz
Photo Credit: Gaylord Hotels
The Sea Island Gingerbread House
Sometimes it's hard to tell from a photo how big something is in real life, so we'll just tell you: The Sea Island gingerbread house pictured here is actually life-sized, and at 200 square feet, bigger than some Manhattan studio apartments. Built of 3,000 gingerbread "bricks," it can fit a Christmas tree, a refreshment table, and plenty of kiddies waiting to see Santa. It took seven days for the Sea Island Bakery team to build. Get a glimpse into the process here.
Photo Credit: Sea Island Resort
Noel Acadien Au Village
Festive décor and philanthropic spirit combine at Noel Acadien Au Village in Lafayette, Louisiana. More than a half-million lights were used to illuminate the 10-acre property, which is a replica of a Cajun village from the 1800s. Proceeds from the minimal admission price go to benefit LARC, a civic program for mentally handicapped citizens.
Photo Credit: Lafayette Convention Visitors Commission
Dixie Stampede Dinner Show
Christmas at the Dixie Stampede packs a holiday bonus serving of all-ages fun into a classic Branson dinner show. Owned by Dolly Parton, the Dixie Stampede features stampeding buffalo, trick riders leaping through rings of fire, and a four-course meal with all the fixin's. For Christmas, special elements are added, including a Sugar Plum Fairy and three kings that ride in atop real-life camels.
Photo Credit: Branson CVB
Of course, the Smoky Mountains' most famous daughter hasn't overlooked her homeland when it comes to planning holiday celebrations. Dollywood, her eponymous theme park, is a family-friendly fantasy land of larger-than-life toys, four million twinkling lights, and amazing music. The show schedule includes returning fan-favorites Christmas in the Smokies and Dollywood's Christmas on Ice.
Photo Credit: Dollywood
The Reveillon Feast
The Reveillon feast is a Cajun tradition that used to be enjoyed after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. These days, local restaurateurs in New Orleans have embraced and updated the traditional feast, creating multi-course holiday menus that are also available Christmas day and sometimes New Year's Eve and New Year's Day as well. Most Reveillon prix-fixe menus can be previewed here.
Photo Credit: Muriel's on Jackson Square
New Orleans City Park
It's no surprise that New Orleans pulls out all the stops with its decorations as well as its celebratory feasting. From the French Market tree lighting ceremony in mid-November until the Joan of Arc Parade on January 6, the city is alive with music, performance and illumination. Pictured is Celebration in the Oaks, a month-long event held at City Park, now in its 25th year.
Photo Credit: New Orleans City Park
Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights
Christmas in Charleston is also a beautiful and rich tradition, with Gullah spiritual concerts, an annual boat parade in early December, the Low Country Singing Christmas Tree at Summerville Baptist Church, and the Holiday Festival of Lights (pictured). Running through January 1, 2012 at James Island County Park, the Festival of Lights offers three miles of beautifully illuminated scenery. People can self-drive or take a train around the lake in the park, then go on a carousel ride, visit Santa's Sweet Shop, or join in a marshmallow roast.
Photo Credit: Charleston Festival of Lights
No snow? No problem. The warmer parts of the South still find ways to enjoy snow's festive qualities without enduring the frightful weather. Three great examples: the snowman decorations on sale at this Virginia plantation holiday fair; the fake snow Sea Island brings onto its beach just for Christmas; and Snow Mountain at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta - complete with two SnoLifts and a 400' tubing hill.
Photo Credit: Flickr/VA State Parks Staff
Sea Island Reindog Parade
And snow's not all; Sea Island gets reindeer, too. Or if you want to be technical about it, reindogs. Which is almost better. During the annual Reindog Parade, guests who have brought their pets are invited to dress them up in festive outfits and promenade through the elegant grounds of The Cloister and the Lodge at Sea Island.
Photo Credit: Lodge at Sea Island