Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Holiday Events 2023: How to get the most magic from the season

There are multiple ways to enjoy the holiday season and below are 35 to get you started. (Port City Daily/File)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — It’s official: The holidays are here!

Light displays, concerts, theatrical performances, ballets, tree lightings, flotillas — there is so much to do in the coming month to celebrate. 

Below are 35 suggestions, many of which kick off the day after Thanksgiving. So if you’re reading this, stuffed to the gills with too much turkey and dressing, well, below are a few ways to work off the calories. The events are listed in order of date.

Happy holidays!

Downtown Wilmington Tree Lighting

Nov. 24 • Foot of Market Street, downtown Wilmington

Taking place Friday, Nov. 24, Wilmington’s annual Christmas tree-lighting festivities begin  at 5:30 p.m. Attendees can expect to see live music, shop through local vendors, enjoy hot cocoa, and even a visit from Santa. The tree will be lit at 6:25 p.m. The event will take place at Water and Market streets and is free for all to attend. 

Wrightsville Beach Tree Lighting 

Nov. 24 • Wrightsville Beach Park

Also on Friday, Wrightsville Beach’s annual tree lighting ceremony will be held at town hall, 321 Causeway Dr. The elf patrol will sing at 5:30 p.m. with Santa’s arrival scheduled for 5:45 p.m. The Wilmington Performance Choir will give a performance at 6 p.m. Cookies and Hot Cocoa will be available for purchase with proceeds benefiting the Wrightsville UMC Youth Group. The event is free for all to attend. 

A Very Merry Downtown Christmas

Nov. 24-26 • Brooklyn Arts Center, 516 N 4th St.

The Brooklyn Arts Center is having a series of performances this weekend starring Broadway veteran Brian Whitted and other guests each night. Hosted by the Opera House Theatre company, a variety of holiday tunes will be performed and the evening will also feature a seven piece orchestra. The show will take place Friday, Nov. 24, through Sunday, Nov. 26, at 7 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday as well. Tickets for the show begin at $30 and are available here

Cape Fear Festival of Trees

Through Jan. 1, 2024  • N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, 900 Loggerhead Rd. 

The region’s longest running holiday event celebrating tree decorating continues through Jan. 1 in Kure Beach. Businesses and organizations sponsor more than 50 trees that are decorated in various themes; some honor loved ones who have passed, others embrace the spirit of the holiday. 

Visitors can also add a name to the Memory Dove Tree to honor and remember loved ones who have passed.

Hand-made wreaths are also for sale, with all proceeds from sponsorships and wreaths going to Lower Cape Fear LifeCare, which helps patients with palliative care or their end-of-life journey. The display is included in the aquarium’s price of admission (reservations must be secured here).

All is Bright 

Nov. 24-Dec. 23 • Poplar Grove Plantation, 10200 Hwy 17 

Historic Poplar Grove Plantation is hosting their annual holiday festivities beginning Friday, Nov. 24.

The grounds will be decorated with a Christmas light display and a number of events and activities will also be taking place. 

Admission to the grounds includes: photo opportunities for the family, a USO letter writing station, Santa’s mailbox, Grinch’s junk shop, campfires to roast marshmallows, Christmas movies, food trucks, and concessions. 

The event runs Thursday-Sunday, 5-p.m. – 9 p.m., every week starting Friday, Nov. 24 and ending on Saturday, Dec. 23. 

Family package tickets are available for $35, which includes 2 adults and 2 kids. Single night all age tickets are available for $10. 

Tickets can be purchased online here or at the gate. 

Christmas Train and Light Spectacular

Nov. 24-25, Dec. 8-9, 15-16, 22-23 • Wilmington Railroad Museum, 505 Nutt St. 

The Wilmington Railroad Museum will transform into a winter wonderland, as their holiday festivities kick off Friday evening. More than 25,000 lights will light up the museum, as well as musical animations and twilight model train displays. Santa plans to be hanging out with treats also available like apple cider and other goodies. The festivities will take place from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 24 and 25 and Dec. 8-9, 15-16, and 22-23. Tickets are $5 at the door. Children under 2 are free. 

Also there will be a reading of the book “Polar Express” and each child that participates will receive a golden ticket punched by the conductor. Cookies and hot cocoa will be served with Santa and the event will run Nov. 25 and 26 and Dec. 9-10 and 16-17 with presentations at 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 pm. nightly. Tickets are $5 and must be purchased in advance. 

Enchanted Airlie

Nov. 24-25, Dec. 1-21 • Airlie Gardens, ADDRESS

OK, so it’s sold out — but if you happen to get a few Airlie Gardens tickets on the black market somehow, welp, prepare to see millions of festive lights, holiday displays and more. The event runs Nov. 24 and 25 and Dec. 1-21 from, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m nightly. 

Holiday Train Expo

Nov. 24-26, Dec. 2-3, 9-10, 16-17, 23, 26-27, 30 • Independence Mall, 3500 Oleander Drive 

Annually, the Cape Fear Model Railroad Society sets up a holiday display in the Dillards wing of Independence Mall to showcase the wonderland of the holidays. There will be 12 layouts featuring more than 30 trains, dressed for the season. The expo is open beginning Black Friday, Nov. 25, and remains open on Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. It’s closed Christmas Eve and Day but will reopen Dec. 26-30 during the same hours. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for children ages 3-12, and free for 3 and under.

Island of Lights 

Nov. 24 – Dec. 9 • Various locations on Pleasure Island

Pleasure Island lights up Friday, Nov. 24, 7 p.m., around the lake. The lighting of the Chritsmas tree and holiday displays take place, open for free to the public. There will be music and Santa will be on site. The lake is located at Atlanta Avenue and Lake Park Boulevard. 

On Friday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m., the Carolina Beach Christmas parade will start at the Carolina Beach Lake near Atlanta Avenue, north on Lake Park Boulevard and end at the Publix intersection. It will feature  businesses, organizations, local leaders and Santa on floats and various holiday displays. Awards will be presented in various categories, including most creative and best overall, as well as a Griswold award.

The next day, the official flotilla takes place at 6 p.m., with vessels traveling from Snow’s Cut Bridge to the Carolina Beach Boat Basin and back again. A panel of judges will choose the winners, but a People’s Choice award is given as well, by participants texting their favorite. 

On Dec. 9 the Island of Lights tour of homes takes place from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., allowing visitors a peek into how the abodes on both Carolina and Kure beaches are decorated. 

Tickets are available at businesses on Pleasure Island and more information can be procured by contacting Teresa Clontz teresa.clontz@yahoo.com.

NC Holiday Flotilla 

Nov. 25 • Wrightsville Beach

The 40th annual holiday flotilla at Wrightsville Beach will get underway Saturday morning at the town complex with a festival in the park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will feature more than 100 arts and crafts vendors, an antique car show and award ceremony, a play area for children with many large inflatables, festival food, and more.

The flotilla — a lighted boat parade — will follow beginning at 6 p.m. Attendees will have the opportunity to vote for the People’s Choice Award once the event starts by texting their favorite boat number to 910-629-5858. 

Directly after the boat parade, a firework display will take place which can be seen from a variety of locations over the Intracoastal Waterway. A map of the viewing locations are here

The event is free for all spectators, but prepare for high volumes of traffic and arrive early for parking.

Mannheim Steamroller

Nov. 29 • Wilson Center, 703 N. Third St.

Ready to hear the Christmas carols get loud? Mannheim Steamroller is here to amp up your holiday. The mega group has released a dozen Christmas albums (and counting) with 31.5 million sold to date. The tours traverse the country each holiday season bringing to life live music and sound effects, in a multi-media show that includes slides and film. It’s performing two shows on Nov. 29 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. with tickets starting at $46.

Nashville Country Christmas

Nov. 30 • Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.

A Southern Christmas comes to life with country Chritsmas classics performed by Nashville musicians at Thalian Hall on Nov. 30. The group will perform holiday classics as heard by Dolly Patron, Kenny Rogers, Brooks and Dunn, and Trisha Yearwood. The show is written and directed by Nashville’s very own stage and touring veterans Natasha Neely and Kyle Henry. Tickets start at $55.

Second City ‘What the Elf?’

Dec. 1 • Kenan Auditorium, 515 Wagoner Dr.

A new original sketch show focused on the comedy of the season will be scaled at Kenan Auditorium at the beginning of December. The Second City — a well-known comedy trroupe out of Chicago — is touring with its irreverent take on the traditional Christmas story. The show will take place Dec. 1, 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $25 and up.


Dec. 1 – Jan. 1 • Cameron Art Museum, 7201 S. 17th St.

The annual holiday exhibition at Cameron Art Museum has artists nationwide creating one-of-a-kind lanterns that go on display for a month. The 2023 exhibition centers on the question: How does light shine in your mind, heart and soul? Various lanterns illuminate color and create shadows on the art museum walls, and judges determine the winning piece. Artists are awarded $1,500 in prizes and a People’s Choice is given. The opening party for “Illumination” will include the winning judge’s selections as well as live music deejayed by James Tritten and Tracy Shedd from Fort Lowell Records. Tickets are $5-$15. 

‘The Nutcracker’

Dec. 1-2, 9-10 • Various locations 

There are numerous chances to take in the famed Tchaikovsky ballet throughout the holiday season. The dancers bring to life the story of Clara, who travels into the Land of Snow as she battles the Mouse Queen to reign over The Land of Sweets and its ruler, the Sugar Plum Fairy.

First up is the New York Ballet for Young Audiences performing Dec. 1, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Dec. 2, 10 a.m., at Thalian Hall. Choreographed by Harriett and Edwin Kinter, tickets are $34.

On Dec. 2 at noon and 3 p.m., a special Nutcracker tea party with Wilmington Conservatory for Fine Arts and Wilmington Dance Theater dancers will take place at St James Episcopal Church in Perry Hall (25 S. Third St.). The event includes an assortment of teas, sandwiches, fairy bread, scones, and cookies, prepared by local bakers. Tea party guests will take home a souvenir and enjoy a meet-and-greet and photo opp with the characters, including the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tickets are $40.

Then the troupes will perform the ballet on Dec. 16-17 at Wilson Center as well, starring Dara Holmes of the Joffrey Ballet. Tickets start at $25. 

City Ballet will present its “Nutcracker” at the Wilson Center as well on Dec. 9, 7 p.m., and Dec. 10, 3 p.m. An orchestra will perform the score live and tickets start at $15. 

The New York Ballet for young audiences features 13 dancers, four children and a narrator performing on Dec. 2 at 4 p.m. and Dec. 3 at 10 a.m. Tickets are $34.

The World Ballet will feature 50 professional ballet dancers bringing to life Tchaikovsky’s music. The show takes place at Kenan Auditorium on Dec. 19, 7 p.m.; tickets are $45 to $85.

Old Wilmington By Candlelight Tour

Dec. 2-3 • 126 South Third St. 

On Dec. 2-3, the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society will be celebrating the annual Candlelight Walking Tour. The holiday event takes place in downtown Wilmington and features historic sites and houses of worship. The tours are self-guided, though each site has a docent who will share history of the structure. All stops are adorned for the holiday season. Tickets are $50.

Riverlights Festival of Trees

Dec. 2 • Marina Village, 109 Pier Master Point 

Starting Dec. 2, Riverlights will live up to its name with a centerpiece 20-foot tree lit by Mayor Bill Saffo. Surrounding it will be additional Chritsmas trees decorated to show area nonprofits’ missions. The winning tree wins a $2,000 donation from Riverlights.

The kickoff is 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Marina Village, and will feature a holiday-curated pop-up market with dozens of local vendors, live music, Santa, and food trucks Playtpus and Gnome and Smash-n-Dash.

All trees will remain lit from dusk to 10 p.m. through Dec. 31.

Leland in Lights

Dec. 2 – Jan. 2 • Founders Park, 113 Town Hall Drive 

Leland’s Founders Park will become Leland in Lights starting Dec. 2 until Jan. 2.  

The town’s tree lighting, and the official open to Leland in Lights, takes place Dec. 2, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Town Hall. From 6:15 p.m. to 8 p.m., the Leland Express will take passengers around Founders Park and Santa will greet visitors. There also will be T’Geaux Boys and Tasty Tees food trucks selling food.

The park features large motion displays, including singing Christmas trees, snowmen playing baseball, two children having a snowball fight, even Old Man Winter blowing cold weather to the South. Santa shows up a few times and his reindeer also make an appearance among thousands of “dripping” lights and ornaments. The Candy Cane Forest is a hot spot, as are all the cutout light displays for photo-ops.

Opening night, Town Hall Drive will be closed to vehicle traffic between Village Road and Old Fayetteville Road, to allow event-goers to walk through the event. Free parking will be available at First Baptist Church of Leland, 517 Village Rd. NE, with a free shuttle to and from the event beginning at 5:30 p.m. No pets or alcohol are allowed.

Wilmington Holiday Parade

Dec. 3 • Front Street, downtown Wilmington

The annual City of Wilmington holiday parade will feature local leaders, businesses and organizations, floats, marching bands and clubs celebrating the merriment of the season. The parade takes place along Front Street in downtown Wilmington on Dec. 3, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m., at dusk. Parking downtown is free on Sundays.

Holiday Pops

Dec. 3 • Wilson Center, 703 N. Third St.

The North Carolina classical orchestra will be performing on Dec. 3 for two shows, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Traditional carols and holiday classics will be performed in this two-hour concert. It will be conducted by Michelle Di Russo. Tickets start at $23.

Songs of the Season

Dec. 4 • Wilson Center, 703 N. Third St.

On Dec. 4 at 7 p.m.,  conductor Byron Marshall and pianist Sheryl Tjon will collaborate with the Wilmington Choral Society to perform seasonal classics. Songs include “O Holy Night,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “What Child is This?” and a selection of John Rutter choral pieces, including “Nativity Carol” and “Twelve Days of Christmas,” among other familiar carols. Tickets are $25, and the show starts at 7 p.m.

Navidad: A Mexican-American Christmas

Dec. 6 • Wilson Center, 703 N. Third St.

Blending Mexican with American holiday traditions, the Calpulli Mexican Dance Company presents “Navidad: A Mexican-American Christmas” at Wilson Center at 7:30 p.m., with tickets starting at $28. The show fuses Mariachi music with Tchaikovsky, folk dance and ballet, and more. The dance company is a nonprofit organization, founded 20 years ago, and preserves the diversity of Mexican and Mexican-American cultural heritage.

Wilmington Menorah Lighting

Dec. 7 • Foot of Market and Front streets 

Chanukah kicks off Dec. 7 this year and to celebrate the Jewish holiday, the City of Wilmington and Chabad of Wilmington will light the menorah. There will be dancing, music and light refreshments. It’s free to attend and takes place downtown at the foot of market.

Charlie Brown Christmas

Dec. 8 • Wilson Center, 703 N. Third St. 

Charles Shultz’s annual holiday classic featuring the Peanuts gang discovering the true meaning of Christmas will be brought to life at Wilson Center by Cape Fear Community College’s theater department. The show takes place at 7 p.m. Dec. 8; tickets are $15 for adults and free for kids 12 and under, as well as CFCC students. CFCC faculty and staff received discounted entry for $9.99.

Christmas Unplugged

Dec. 8 • Bourgie Nights, 123 Princess St. 

It’s the office Christmas party for area musicians on Dec. 8, and the community is welcome to join in on the celebration at Bourgie Nights. Featuring a dozen or so singer-songwriters and bands, the show consists of each act performing three songs — two holiday tracks and one original composition. This year the tinsel-strung concert, eggnog included, will welcome Sean Thomas Gerard, Justin Lacy, Carlos Rising of Holy Heat, Julia Rothenberger (of Lady Die), and Kevin Rhodes and Tom Gossin (of Gloriana). A $10 suggested donation at the door goes to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation.

Elf the Musical

Dec. 7-17 • Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.

“Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?”

Thalian Association Community Theater is bringing to life the holiday classic “Elf,” as a live musical. Based on the 20-year-old film starring Will Ferrell, Thalian has staged the show before to much fanfare. The musical follows the tale of Buddy the Elf leaving the North Pole for New York City to find his biological father; hijinks ensue as the human-raised-as-an-elf adjusts to a fast-paced society and spreads Christmas cheer for all to hear.

Every Christmas Story Every Told (and then some)

Dec. 7-17 • Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St. 

Three actors take the stage in this romp of a holiday show. The castmates are their real-life personas who put on various hats — literally, there are more costume changes and props than bells on Santa’s sleigh — and bring to life familiar characters across the ages. Santa, Rudolph, Linus, the Ghost of Christmas Past, a Who down in Whoville and Frosty, among others, come to life in Big Dawg Productions’ Every Christmas Story Ever Told.” The show runs at the Ruth & Bucky Stein Studio Theatre, Dec. 7-17, Thurs. – Sat., 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees, 3 p.m.

The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays

Dec. 12 • Wilson Center, 703 N. Third St. 

Looking to put some spectacle into the season? A group of award-winning and highly revered illusionists will bring to life thrilling and sophisticated magic, including mind reading and sleight of hand. Tickets start at $38 and the show is at 7:30 p.m. at Wilson Center. 

Kure Beach Holiday Whoobie Whatty

Dec. 15 • Town of Kure Beach, 105 Atlantic Ave. 

Kure Beach will become Whoville on Dec. 15 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., as it prepares for a Grinch-themed celebration. It’s free to attend and the evening kicks off with the announcement of the 2023 Kure Beach Cheermeister — awarding the most festively decorated home in town, as voted on by the public.

Afterward, the Jim Carrey holiday classic of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” will be screened. Various activity stations will be set up in the park for families to enjoy, including face-painting, craft-making and cookie-decorating. Photos also will be available with the Grinch. Refreshments available for purchase.

Hark, the Herald Angels Swing!

Dec. 15-17, Thalian Hall Ballroom, 310 Chestnut St.

Directed by Ray Kennedy, Opera House Theatre Company’s new artistic director, the annual fundraiser brings together numerous local performers to sing through holiday classics like “Winter Wonderland,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” The show is one of Opera House’s main fundraisers of the year with a three-course meal also served; a silent auction takes place too. Tickets go on sale Nov. 23.

The Midatlantic Holiday Revue

Dec. 15 • Brooklyn Arts Center, 516 N. 4th St.

It’s returning for another year: the Midatlantic Holiday Revueconcert to benefit both the Plastic Ocean Project and Toys For Tots. 

The night will present an evening of Americana sounds from The Midatlantic as well the sultry blues-rock of the Paper Stars.

Tickets are $20 to $50 and proceeds benefit Plastic Ocean Project, with a mission to remove plastics from the ocean. An unwrapped toy is also suggested to benefit Toys for Tots.

Season’s Greetings: Hits of Frankie Valli

Dec. 20 • Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.

The Four C Notes recreate the music of the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli, who made hits with “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like A Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” among others. The group was created by John Michael Coppola, known for his performance in “Jersey Boys!” The group dons matching outfits while performing choreographed moves to the vocals. Tickets are $64.

Bending Towards the Light a Jazz Nativity

Dec. 21, Kenan Auditorium, 515 Wagoner Dr.

Local musicians including Benny Hill, Brian Mason, and Annie Jewell are coming together for a holiday performance on UNCW’s campus. The program, titled “Bending Toward the Light: A Jazz Nativity,” includes music written and arranged by Anne Phillips, Bob Kindred and Dave Brubeck. It essentially tells the Christmas story through the jazz medium. Musicians and the Chancel Choir of Wrightsville United Methodist Church dress as kings, shepherds, and angels as they perform. Opening will be the Wrightsville Ringers handbell group. The show takes place Dec. 21 at 7 p.m., with $14 tickets.  

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Dec. 22 • Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St. 

It’s become a holiday tradition: screening Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” at downtown’s historic Thalian Hall every year the week of Christmas. Capra — whose grandson Frank Capra Jr. helped found EUE/Screen Gems studio in Wilmington, now known as Cinespace — filmed the Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed classic in 1946. It has since been remastered and follows the tale of George Bailey who is visited by an angel, Clarence, who shows him what life would look like in Bedford Falls if George wasn’t around. There are two showings on Dec. 22 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., with tickets costing $15.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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