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Free and fun for the whole family: Visiting Christmas Town USA in North Carolina

Dec. 14, 2022
4 min read
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The twinkling lights adorning houses across the U.S. every December add an extra dash of holiday magic to the evenings. But perhaps nowhere embraces the holiday spirit more than McAdenville, North Carolina.

Dubbed "Christmas Town USA," lights sparkle on hundreds of trees and buildings as well as public spaces around town. And best of all, it's free to visit and enjoy all that holiday cheer; there are no visitor or parking fees.

TPG recently visited McAdenville for the tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 1, but there's plenty of time left before the displays come down for folks to visit this truly singular city.

The humble beginnings of Christmas Town USA

Back in 1956, McAdenville was a mill town for Pharr Yarns. The local mens club asked the company director if they could decorate the nine trees surrounding the community center to bring some holiday cheer, and a tradition was born.

However, it wasn't until 1980 that Christmas Town USA entered the national spotlight. With a population of just 1,000 people, McAdenville's celebrity for holiday lights only ballooned after a visit from "CBS Sunday Morning's" Charles Kuralt that year. After his report, tourism to McAdenville's lights displays and annual tree lighting ceremony took off.

Visiting Christmas Town USA

McAdenville is located 10 miles southwest of Charlotte. The annual lighting ceremony kicks off the displays each year on Dec. 1. The lights are on every night from 5:30 to 10, running until Dec. 26. Despite its small size, a spokesperson for the McAdenville council said the town expects tens of thousands of visitors to walk and drive through the hamlet to see the lights this month.

While the tree lighting ceremony has come and gone, visitors can still participate in the Yule Log Parade on Dec. 15 at 5:30 p.m. This tradition dates to 1949 and culminates with adding the log to the fire at Legacy Park after being pulled through town on a traditional sled.

Related: From Branson, Missouri, to Newport Beach, California, here's our guide to 13 of the best holiday light shows in the US

In addition to lights — roughly 500,000 of them on 250 trees throughout McAdenville — local homes are decorated, some of them very elaborately. Transforming McAdenville into Christmas Town requires a crew of volunteers who begin their work on Labor Day weekend and finish on Thanksgiving in time for the Christmas Town 5K run. Removing all the decorations is another monumental effort, lasting until March of the following year.

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Visitors at the tree lighting ceremony wait as the sun goes down. RYAN SMITH/THE POINTS GUY

The tree lighting featured entertainment from the local high school jazz band and the elementary school choir. Visitors were also treated to free popcorn and hot cocoa to keep us warm as we waited for the sun to go down and the lights to come on.

Each year, a randomly selected fourth grader from the local elementary school gets to flip the switch, instantly transforming McAdenville into Christmas Town.

Throughout the holiday season, Santa and Mrs. Claus make surprise appearances around town. At the conclusion of the tree lighting ceremony, Santa arrived on a horse-drawn carriage, and children could take photos with him while sitting on his lap and sharing their Christmas wishes and gift lists.

If you decide to visit, skip Uber and drive your own car (or a rental) to McAdenville. The main tree lighting happens at the town center, but you get the full experience by driving around and seeing all of the decorated homes. Parking is also readily available around the town.

Bottom line

Whether you walk through the town or drive in the crawling traffic on the two-lane road running through the center of McAdenville, visiting Christmas Town feels magical. It might not be worth traveling from long distances or flying in, but if you happen to be in the region, a stop in Christmas Town USA should definitely be on your holiday to-do list. Especially if you can catch the tree lighting or the Yule Log Parade.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.