Northwest Holiday Celebrations

Celebrate the Holidays With These Festive Northwest Traditions

When Santa splashes down in the foggy mouth of the Columbia River, crabbers and the Coast Guard come to the rescue every year.

An annual reading of “A Coastal Christmas,” written by Long Beach author Lynette McAdams and illustrated by Astoria artist Sally Lackaff, has become a tradition for the small town of Ilwaco on the Long Beach Peninsula.

On the first Saturday of December, this holiday tale — which imagines Santa craving Dungeness crab instead of cookies and his reindeer munching on co-op kale — comes after the town’s lighting of a Christmas tree made of crab pots and before what port officials call the “world’s shortest fireworks display,” a burst no longer than 30 seconds to tell shopkeepers that visitors are headed their way for time with Santa, hot chocolate and cookies.

“Our way of life down here and through the Northwest is tied to the water,” said McAdams about the book that she and Lackaff cut and glued by hand in the first year. “Our crabbers are out there on Christmas Eve. They’ve waited all year to make money and they’re hungry for it. They’re out there making sacrifices all season long, and so are those Coast Guard families.”

Ilwaco’s Crab Pot Christmas is one of her favorite celebrations, from the crabby carols to the way the town comes together “like Whoville from ‘How the Grinch stole Christmas.’”

It’s a holiday experience you’ll only find in the Northwest, and one of the many celebrations scattered throughout the region, from brightly lit ships to festive markets and high-altitude New Year’s fireworks.

BOTANICAL FESTIVITIES

Butchart Gardens (photo courtesy of Butchart Gardens)

A spectacle itself in any season, Butchart Gardens near Victoria, British Columbia, takes on a whole new persona during the holidays with decorative lights, carolers and an outdoor ice skating rink (make sure to book your time when you arrive).

The Oregon Garden in the heart of Silverton similarly has lights and ice skating, plus snowless tubing and a German market. The 80-acre botanical garden is also home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House, one of the few Pacific Northwest residences designed by the architect — and rarer yet in that guided tours are available by reservation.

On Seattle’s Eastside, the Bellevue Botanical Garden hosts its Garden d’Lights event through the end of the year, featuring whimsical light sculptures in the shapes of flora and fauna.

In Spokane, 18 themed Christmas trees will be displayed at the Historic Davenport Hotel and River Park Square; take a look before or after ice skating at the nearby Riverfront Park.

CHRISTMAS SHIPS

Argosy’s Christmas Ship Festival (photo by Danita Delimont / Alamy)

Ships and skippers set sail on the Willamette and Columbia rivers decked out in bright lights and holiday garb. Operated by volunteers, the Christmas Ships Parade has been a tradition in the Rose City for decades. More than 60 privately owned vessels travel from Vancouver (Washington), Salem, Hood River and beyond for this festive waterfront spectacle.

The ships usually make their rounds during the first three weeks of December, but check online for times and locations. Hayden Bay, the North Portland Harbor and the St. Johns Bridge are popular viewing points when ships cruise by.

Seattle’s Argosy Cruises puts on its Christmas Ship Festival with cruises around Puget Sound, a nautical parade on Lake Union and the Fremont Cut, and shore events with bonfires, tree lightings and choir performances broadcast from the water. Alki Beach, Golden Gardens and the Seattle waterfront are all great spots to watch, depending on the schedule.

CELEBRATE WITH ARTISANS

Pike Place Market (photo by Paul Christian Gordon / Alamy)

Monroe’s Artisans Holiday Fair is one of the largest and most diverse seasonal makers markets in the Northwest, with makers, food vendors, live entertainment and Santa Claus himself.

Seattle’s “Magic in the Market” at Pike Place on November 30 offers festive activities such as a tree lighting and Santa meet-and-greets. Shoppers can look for gifts made by more than 200 local vendors, ranging from handmade stockings and holiday wreaths to cigar box guitars.

The Holiday Native Gift Fair and Art Market at the Duwamish Longhouse in Seattle showcases the work of more than 25 indigenous artists and craftspeople. The Westlake Holiday Market is another favorite to visit while you’re in the area.

ZOO LIGHTS

A girl rides the carousel at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (photo by John Froschauer)

Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium offers vintage carousel and camel rides in addition to its colorful 3D displays, including a 22-foot glowing crab with moving pincers.

Back in Seattle, the Woodland Park Zoo features faux snowball fights, up-close animal encounters and more sparkling lights.

The Oregon Zoo in Portland has a lighted steam train, winter walks and an assortment of food carts, while Zoo Idaho in Pocatello is decorated with lights and has a series of classes for kids.

FESTIVE TRAIN RIDES

The Polar Express train ride at the Mount Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum in Elbe
(photo by Mike Brewington for the Mount Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum)

The Polar Express departs from the town of Elbe along the Mount Rainier Railroad from late November through the end of the year. On this theatrical, 90-minute train ride, passengers are served hot cocoa, entertained by pastry chefs and immersed in a reading of the train’s namesake book. Upon arrival to the North Pole – otherwise known as Mount Rainier National Park – each child receives a small gift from Santa.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Santa Train in North Bend, which runs most weekends throughout the season. The two-hour round trip to Snoqualmie includes a Santa visit at the 19th century Snoqualmie Depot.

The 45-minute Holiday Express Train ride in Portland offers vintage rail cars, scenic Willamette River views and visits with Santa.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, the Bright Nights Christmas Train features more than 3 million sparkling bulbs, beautiful displays and live performances.

WATERFRONT SPECTACLES

A gray whale light display at Shore Acres State Park (courtesy of Shore Acres State Park)

About 25 miles north of Everett, The Lights of Christmas at Warm Beach and Conference Center rivals some of the largest festivals in the Northwest. This event in Stanwood boasts more than 1 million lights over 15 acres with pony rides, storytelling, a train and live entertainment. Overnight lodging is available for small to large groups. (AAA members save $2 off festival admission at the gate.)

Cannon Beach has hosted its annual Haystack Holidays events for more than 45 years. Get crafty with holiday wreath making, enjoy concerts, festive displays, photos with Santa and the Lamp Lighting Ceremony in Sandpiper Square.

Shore Acres State Park in southern Oregon draws approximately 50,000 visitors each season to the scenic waterfront park’s light display of 325,000 LEDS and animated sculptures including pelicans, sea horses and a life-size gray whale.

Coeur d’Alene Resort’s Holiday Light Show boasts 1.5 million lights, a “Journey to the North Pole” cruise across the lake to Santa’s Toy Workshop and a giant, floating Christmas tree.

EXTEND THE SEASON

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Leta Biasucci as the Sugar Plum Fairy in a scene from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
(photo by Angela Sterling)

If you find yourself feeling blue on December 26, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s performances of “The Nutcracker” at McCaw Hall run through December 28 (A 10 percent discount is available for members at pnb.org with code 20AAA). Seattle Winterfest at the Seattle Center, featuring an ice rink and The Dickens Carolers, runs through December 31, while the Sheraton Grand Seattle’s Gingerbread Village stays open through January 1.

And you can always head to Leavenworth, which keeps its holiday lights on seven days a week at least through Valentine’s Day. The town also hosts a Bavarian Ice Festival in mid-January with plenty of sledding, snow sculptures and live ice carving (when weather allows) to tide you over until next year.

SKY-HIGH NEW YEAR’S CELEBRATIONS

Photo by Nikada \ iStock.com

At an altitude of approximately 4,000 feet, there are few places as dramatic to view New Year’s Eve fireworks than the top of Grouse Mountain. The British Columbia resort’s Skyride and terrain parks are complemented by a family New Year’s Eve celebration featuring live music, fire performances, a gingerbread village, an 8,000-square-foot skate pond and a 9 p.m. countdown for younger participants who can’t stay up too late.

In Seattle, view the awe-inspiring Space Needle fireworks show from the top of the tower – complete with a converted dance floor and observation deck – or stake out viewpoints from the South Fountain Lawn, Gas Works Park or Volunteer Park.

—Written by Maggy Lehmicke, a Seattle-area native who has spent the past 20 years exploring the greater Pacific Northwest. Her favorite holiday activities are shopping in Ballard, visiting PortTownsend and skiing at Mission Ridge in Wenatchee.