As a child growing up in Ireland, the holiday season was a magical time. My fondest memories are celebrating at my grandmother’s home in the quaint village of Tulla, where all of our extended family gathered for a spirited Irish celebration. After attending Mass in an ancient village church, we retired to Clonmore Manor, the home of my grandmother, where the celebration resembled a Victorian Dickens Christmas. We had a lot of “good craic,” a Gaelic expression, which means having a good time or a hearty laugh.
Fast-forward a few years, and I am now steeped in celebrating the holidays, Southern style. My husband, Curtis, and our two daughters Claire and Maeve have grown up in Mississippi, so I have adjusted my traditions. But you don’t necessarily have to be at home to enjoy the holidays, as there are so many beautiful places to celebrate this time of year.
Deciding where to celebrate, and with whom, is part of the excitement. Many people use this time as an opportunity to have a family reunion, celebrate with close friends or just have a quiet getaway. From coast to coast, there is nearly an endless array of towns and resorts that pull out all the stops for the season.
I invite you to dash through some of my favorite Southern destinations, where the tradition of celebrating the holiday season is robust.
Mountain Magic - Highlands, N. C.
In the storybook town of Highlands, N. C., nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is the Old Edwards Inn and Spa. The inn opened in 1878 as a boarding house, and after having gone through several re-incarnations in the intervening 123 years, it was purchased in 2001 by a couple and has benefited from monumental improvements.
Today, there are several options for accommodations at Old Edwards: the Inn rooms, the Lodge cottages, which surround a heated mineral pool, as well as the Farmhouse, which is five minutes away. It seems that every surface at Old Edwards is made of something sumptuous.
Thanksgiving is a special time there, and the inn will be decorated for the holidays starting Thanksgiving weekend. It is also when all the fun and festivities begin that will last until the New Year - and most events are complimentary to guests. Some of the amenities include live piano music in the tastefully appointed and extremely comfortable Hummingbird Lounge; a Christmas tree voucher for a nearby tree farm; elf tuck-ins for your young ones and Christmas movies by the fire and other family fun in the Kelsey Game Room.
Old Edwards Inn and Spa offers several holiday packages. Condé Nast Traveler readers selected The Spa at Old Edwards Inn as the best hotel spa in North America in 2010. Thank goodness, then, that the hotel offers The Comfort and Joy package, from November 4th thru December 23rd. It includes special pricing for deluxe accommodations for two during a one- or two-night stay; a dinner for two in their divine restaurant, Madison’s, and your choice of a selection of spa treatments. This is a wonderful opportunity for a girlfriend getaway.
If you plan to be there over Christmas, expect a delicious lunch on Christmas Day; bocce ball or croquet on The Lodge Lawn; a complimentary buffet in Hummingbird for inn guests, in addition to other celebratory and family-oriented activities.
New Year’s Eve begins with hors d’oeuvres in Hummingbird, dinner in Madison’s, a champagne toast and the “12 Grapes at Midnight” tradition, when you eat a grape with each strike of the clock at midnight to bring prosperity for the coming year. There will also be a party at the Springhouse, a lovely, rustic special events facility.
A new take on a very old Creole Christmas custom begins early in December with traditional Réveillon dinners, which is French for “awakening.” These dinners were held in homes after family members returned from midnight Mass, in the wee hours of Christmas morning. By the 1940s, this practice was all but extinguished. Now, happily, many fine restaurants such as Arnaud’s, Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace have brought them back for the month of December (some serve until Twelfth Night, January 6) by offering pre-fixe dinners at very attractive pricing.
Commander’s Palace Réveillon dinner menu includes compressed oyster, butter-broiled flounder, a wild game bird cassoulet, chestnut-crusted sweetbreads and hand-carved veal, and for the finale, a sticky toffee and gingerbread soufflé. After the flounder course, there is a break in the meal, “le coup de milieu,” whereupon a refreshing champagne cocktail, a Saint 76, is served. Ooh la la.
At 7 p.m. the Sunday before Christmas, Jackson Square will be awash in the glow of candles that are passed out from person to person, with song sheets, and the whole crowd sings Christmas carols in unison.
So many of the hotels are decked out for the season. You can join Papa Noël at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans for an elegant holiday tea party for parents and children. Music, storytelling and a gingerbread masterpiece are featured.
The beautiful renovated Roosevelt Hotel has a magnificent display of trees and twinkling white lights and holds a beautiful Teddy Bear Tea in the Crescent City Ballroom. What a great excuse to dress up in your holiday finery.
The Royal Sonesta Hotel hosts a festive and whimsical Teddy Bear Royal Tea with Santa, Mrs. Claus, Frosty and many more holiday characters.
And one of my favorites is the beautiful Windsor Court Hotel. During the month of December, a special children’s menu is served in Le Salon with hot cocoa and Christmas cookies, including ginger bread men. This exquisite hotel never looks more festive than during the holidays.
Atlanta Holiday Happenings
Atlanta has something for everyone to get in the holiday spirit. It may not be as famous as the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting, but the Great Tree Lighting at Macy's at Lenox Square is spectacular. Ice-skate at Centennial Olympic Park, which will be lit with Christmas lights, and you will be able to glide across the ice to some of your favorite holiday music. For some cool outdoor fun, how about a visit to Snow Mountain at Stone Mountain Park which is located just east of Atlanta. Here you have the choice of tubing on a snow-covered hillside, make snow angels or just have an old-fashioned snowball fight.
As you can imagine, there are so many places to choose from in the Atlanta area that are decorated to the “nines” and pull out all the stops to help you celebrate in style.
St. Regis Atlanta
More than a century ago, the Astor family played host at a holiday gala for their special group of friends, and they transformed the flagship St. Regis New York ballroom into an ice-skating rink. Inspired by this tradition, the St. Regis Atlanta recreates the Astor Holiday Rink each holiday season, which is the first and only hotel ice-skating destination.
The Ritz Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation
This resort, which is located approximately 75 miles southeast of Atlanta, is situated on the stunning Lake Oconee. From Halloween to Christmas, the festivities are non-stop. Listed below are some great activities to partake in. I especially love the Pajama Breakfast.
From November 18th thru February 24th, The Lodge features an ice skating rink, complimentary for resort guests.
Holiday Tree Lighting:
On November 21, a fun and festive holiday reception for resort guests is planned, featuring carolers, a visit from Santa and the lighting of their 55-foot Christmas tree.
Thanksgiving Brunch and Iron Chef Challenge:
On November 22nd, Thanksgiving, the resort will hold the Iron Chef Challenge as the resort chefs go spatula-to-spatula in an exciting competition with a holiday-themed “secret ingredient.” There will also be a dramatic edible showpiece created by the executive pastry chef.
Pajama Breakfast with Santa
From Thanksgiving to Christmas, young guests can enjoy a breakfast buffet featuring miniature pancakes, muffins, waffles and other pint-sized breakfast items. During the breakfast, Santa will be available for photographs. All guests are encouraged to wear their pajamas!
Coastal Celebration - Amelia Island, Fla.
If a beach destination is appealing to you for the holidays, may I suggest Amelia Island? It is where Southern charm meets Florida’s warm ocean waves and white sand beaches. About 30 minutes from Jacksonville, it is just a short flight from Jackson.
During the first Friday night in December, you can witness a 2-mile long glow from luminaries crossing Amelia Island. Or you can tour historic homes, via a trolley, that are professionally decorated for Christmas. And if you want to include your precious four-legged companion, there is a pet parade that gives owners a chance to walk with pets in their holiday best! So now I have to buy an outfit for my Bosco.
I would highly recommend staying at the very festive Ritz Carlton Amelia Island. The moment you step into the lobby, you will be dazzled by the magnificent gingerbread creation, baked and decorated by a team of Ritz pastry chefs. The culinary feat is a 17-foot long gingerbread pirate ship, the S.S. Amelia, adorned with gingerbread pirates, gingerbread cannon, and chocolate cannon balls.
The resort also features Santa “tuck-ins” for the kids, beach bonfires, wagon rides on beach paths bordered by sand dunes and much more. I have one word for this: fun. Where do I sign up?
Sometimes, all we need is a simple change of scenery to put us in the holiday spirit . . . or to begin new traditions, or to enjoy time-honored ones. We don’t have to travel far from home to still enjoy the graciousness and Southern hospitality during this festive time.
I wish you all happy and safe travels throughout the holiday season.