Dashing through America — Christmas highlights and holiday traditions coast to coast

Ready or not, the holiday season is here.

Chances are you’re already doing a bit of hustling and bustling, trying to get ahead on your December schedule. This may be a perfect time to start a new tradition of enjoying some wonderful holiday events with family and friends. Here’s a random sampling of special events all across America that take place throughout the holiday season. Before visiting, please check the Web site or phone ahead for exact times and costs.

San Francisco
Great Dickens Christmas Fair

Strolling through the crooked streets simulating 19th-century London, guests meet a variety of Dickensian characters conducting their holiday business. Visitors will enjoy Father Christmas and the mischievous antics of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger, and cringe at Scrooge and Fagin. Dickens Fair.jpgA new attraction this year also features characters from Jules Verne’s science-fiction novels. Shows include a Christmas pantomime at the Victoria and Albert Music Hall and the Punch & Judy puppet show down the street at the Sugarplum Playhouse.

Father Christmas and a young fan at San Francisco’s Dickens Fair.

Then check out Victorian wares in about 100 shops. Held at the Cow Palace for more than 30 years, this fair is open five consecutive weekends during the holiday season.

For more information, call 800-510-1558, www.dickensfair.com.

Hartford, Conn.
Mark Twain House

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, built this 19-room home in 1874. The interior was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and the furnishings are equally as impressive. Twain lived here with his wife and three daughters for17 years. It was while writing in this house that his career peaked with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other classics. Mark Twain House.jpgDuring the holiday season, traditional decorations glisten as they did when the Clemens family received visitors.

The Mahogany Room in the Mark Twain House, all decked out for the holidays.

In the entry hall, a “kissing ball” of mistletoe dangles overhead. The massive staircase and doorways are swathed in garlands and ribbons. Family silver and china on the dining room table look as they did during festive holiday meals. Rooms on the second and third floors appear as though the family was preparing for Christmas. Gifts in various stages of wrapping are in the bedrooms. The girls’ schoolroom has a table set as if the daughters were making decorations.

For more information, call 860-247-0998, www.marktwainhouse.org.

Lake Wales, Fla.
Historic Bok Sanctuary

Historic Bok Sanctuary.jpgBuilt in 1929 for the Buck family, this 20-room Mediterranean villa – known today as Pinewood – has been featured on HGTV’s “Christmas Castles.” The holiday season is the only time Pinewood is open for tours. This year’s theme is “A Jolly, Jazzy Holiday Home Tour.”

The living room of The Pinewoods, the hideaway villa of the Buck family, aglow for Christmas.

Holiday floral decorations enhance the intricately carved woodwork and colorful handmade tiles on the walls and floors. Chestnuts roast on an open fire and the best linens, dishes and sterling are on the dining room table ready for Christmas dinner. Strains of The Nutcracker can be heard coming from the music room. Even the children’s bedrooms are lavishly decorated. After touring Pinewood, visitors can also stroll through 157 acres of lush gardens. Holiday music is heard throughout the day at half-hour intervals and during the recital each afternoon on the 60-bell carillon housed in a 205-foot tower of pink and gray marble.

For more information, call 863-676-1408, www.boksanctuary.org.

Springfield, Ill.
Dana-Thomas House State Historic Site

The Dana-Thomas house is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most elaborate Prairie Style homes. Originally commissioned to restructure Susan Lawrence Dana’s 30-year-old brick house, Wright let his architectural style take over.

When the home was completed in 1904, the only remaining sign of the family home was a Victorian sitting room with fireplace, which exists in the home today. Of special interest are 110 pieces of Wright-designed furniture, plus 450 art-glass doors, windows and light fixtures. During December there will be a celebration/re-creation of the many parties Susan Lawrence Dana held during her first Christmas season in her new home. The 35-room mansion will be decorated extensively and live music will be heard in the house each weekend afternoon.

For more information, call 217-744-3598, www.dana-thomas.org.

Old Salem, N.C.
Founded inOld Salem.jpg 1766 to house professional Moravian craftsmen, Salem was a haven for entrepreneurs. Now known as Old Salem, it is one of America’s most authentic and well-documented colonial sites.

A simple scene for the holiday at Old Salem.

Visitors can explore four museums: At The Historic Town of Salem, costumed interpreters help visitors experience 18th- and 19th-century life in the Moravian community. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) is the only facility dedicated to exhibiting and researching the original decorative arts of the early South. Its 24 rooms and sevens galleries showcase the furniture, paintings, textiles, ceramics and metalwares made and used regionally through 1820.

The Toy Museum at Old Salem focuses on 1,700 years of antiques including a small, but rare, group of Moravian toys. With more than 1,200 antique toys spanning from 225 A.D. to the 1920s, it is regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious toy collections. A child-sized replica of the 1771 Miksch House, complete with a kitchen, rope bed and early clothing to try on, is an inviting, interactive play space for young children at Old Salem’s Children’s Museum.

Old Salem observes the holiday season with an eight-week celebration featuring workshops, candlelight tours, children’s events, holiday music and weekend festivities. During December, MESDA’s period rooms are decorated to reflect how early Southerners celebrated the season. Visit here to learn about Yuletide customs such as decorating with greenery, gift giving, abundant feasting and Twelfth Night celebrations. Other highlights include candlelight tours in the historic district, musical performances and puppet shows in the Old Salem Children’s Museum.

For more information, call 888-653-7253, www.oldsalem.org.

The Holiday Trains Of Cincinnati

Last year more than 225,000 visitors from 17 countries and 44 states visited the lobby of Duke Energy from the Friday after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Eve to see one of the world’s largest model-train displays. Started in 1946, the Duke Energy/CSX Holiday Model Train Display continues the tradition for the 62nd consecutive year. Duke Energy Museum.jpgThe 2007 theme, “Enchanted Winter Wonderland,” features snow-covered trees and the sounds of music floating in the air.

The Western Maryland locomotive travels on the holiday train tracks to Point of Rocks Station to pick up passengers just as it did in the 1930s at Cincinnati’s Duke Energy Museum.

The display, which measures 36 1/2 feet by 47 1/2 feet, includes approximately 300 train cars and 50 locomotives on 1,000 feet of track. The trains are authentic “O” gauge in which a quarter inch on the model is equivalent to one foot on a real train. Rail cars, tracks and buildings are 1/48th actual size.

Visitors will see almost every kind of railroad car that ever traveled America’s railways. Locomotives ranging from vintage steam-driven models to diesel-powered streamliners join passenger cars complete with dining tables. Look for Pullman cars featuring bunks, dome-topped observation cars, freight cars and postal cars carrying U.S. mail. Of course, there’s a little red caboose. Look past the festive countryside display to spot the control towers, section houses, and other buildings essential to railroad operations.

A small group of volunteers – Duke Energy employees and retirees – spend hundreds of hours throughout the year handcrafting replacement parts and adding to the collection of miniature buildings and structures.

For more information, call 513-287-1500, www.duke-energy.com/community/programs/train.asp.

Norris, Tenn.
Museum of Appalachia

During the holiday season, the folk village at the Museum of Appalachia takes on the spirit and meaning of an old-time Christmas. Museum of Appalachia.jpgThe one-room, dirt-floor “Daniel Boone” cabin, typical of austere pioneer times, has a dormant tree bearing a few homemade decorations such as strings of popcorn and bolls of cotton. The Mark Twain family cabin features simple and natural decorations such as sweet gum and sycamore balls.

A re-enactor sets the holiday seen at the Museum of Appalachia.

The more gaily decorated turn-of-the-century Homestead House features a native red cedar Christmas tree topped with a silver star. The Christmas tree in the Little Tater Valley Schoolhouse is adorned with traditional paper chains and other ornaments made by local second-graders. Musicians play and sing Christmas carols and old-time songs in front of open fires every day during December. The Museum Gift Shop is stocked for holiday shopping with thousands of Appalachian-made items representing many months of labor by hundreds of local and regional mountain folk.

For more information, call 865-494-7680, www.museumofappalachia.com.

Bayou Bend

Ima Hogg, a Texas woman saddled with an unusual name, left a legacy as big as the Lone Star state itself. Born in 1882, her father became Governor of Texas when she was eight. Never married, she was known as Miss Ima throughout her life. During the 1920s oil was discovered on Hogg family land. Miss Ima, who lived to age 93, devoted her lifetime to a wide range of philanthropic projects. She was also able to spend a lot of time studying and collecting American art and antiques. Her immense wealth and devotion to studying antiques resulted in one of the finest collections of American decorative arts from 1640 to the Rococo Revival period of the mid-1870s.

From 1928 until 1957, she lived with her antiques in Bayou Bend, her 28-room pink stucco mansion in Houston surrounded by a 14-acre oasis of manicured gardens. Bayou Bend.jpgIn 1957 she donated her fully furnished home to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and, with her guidance and financial support, it became a showplace for decorative arts that opened to the public in 1966.

A sampling of the tastefully appointed hholiday decorations you’ll find at Bayou Bend.

While it is open for tours all year, during the 2007 holiday season Bayou Bend celebrates “Extraordinary Women in Holiday Heroines.” The central figure is Miss Ima herself. This year marks the 50th anniversary of her gift and her presence is felt in three of the eight rooms specially decorated for the season. The historical vignettes created for Yuletide utilize the exceptional furniture, paintings, ceramics and silver that comprise the Bayou Bend Collection. Period table settings, decorations, textiles and other rarely seen furnishings enhance the displays.

For more information, call 713-639-7750, www.mfah.org/bayoubend.