The equestrian community of Aiken, South Carolina, is better known for the clip-clop of horses than the clickity-clack of reindeer — but that’s only because most of us don’t realize that this town hides a magical secret: When Christmastime comes around, Aiken becomes a true wonderland.
Whether your agenda calls for shopping, eating, or just celebrating the season, Aiken welcomes you with its graceful live oak-lined streets and community-centric traditions and festivities. Here are a few of our favorite ways to spend the holidays in Aiken.
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Blessing of the Hounds in Hitchcock Woods
On the morning of Thanksgiving Day, take a stroll through Hitchcock Woods — a 2,100-acre urban forest with 70-plus miles of trails — to see the Blessing of the Hounds. “The Blessing of the Hounds is a centuries-old tradition in England,” explains Linda McLean, master of the fox hounds. “It is a very religious and serious blessing that happens on the first day of hunting for every hunt in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and it’s much-revered as a sacred tradition.” About a thousand people turn up for this annual ceremony to kick off Aiken’s longstanding “fox hunting” season (don’t worry, these hounds hunt the smell of a fox, not a real fox). “Come down, see the horses, see the hounds, and see the people dressed in their best hunting attire,” McLean says.
Leave your own pups at home for this event, and at 9 a.m., head to the lawn of the Aiken County Historical Museum for the Bloodies and Bagels event just before the blessing. There, you can fortify yourself with bagels, coffee, and a Bloody Mary to liven up an already good time.
Hoofbeats and Carols Christmas Parade
Bring your horse! Bring your dog! Or simply stand on the sidelines and sing along. Aiken’s Hoofbeats and Carols Christmas Parade is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for any animal lover, as bell- and bow-clad horses prance alongside dogs of every breed — dressed in Christmas attire, of course. Want to march alongside your hoofed or pawed buddies as the parade makes its way through downtown Aiken? Call ahead (Trish Leslie, (706) 951-2349) to reserve your place in the parade, and bring a $10 donation. Oh, what fun!
Christmas in Hopelands
December 14-23, 26
During this beloved December tradition, Hopelands Gardens — a 14-acre estate with century-old live oaks, deodar cedars, and curving garden paths — sparkles and shines with holiday wonder. You can visit Santa Claus, or purchase a s’mores kit to toast a warm winter treat by the fire. Sip apple cider or hot chocolate as you spread your blanket under the stars to enjoy Christmas carols. For a full list of events, hours, and more, visit aikenismagical.com.
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Cross off Your Christmas List
November 29 and December 6, 13, 20
“All I want for Christmas is downtown Aiken!” That’s the theme of this year’s Holiday Hop, which starts the Friday night after Thanksgiving and runs every Friday until Christmas. With Main Street stores keeping their doors open until 8 p.m., shoppers have a chance to find one-of-a-kind gifts, like hand-blown glass at 3 Monkeys Fine Gifts or a new C.E. Corey’s Aiken China collector’s piece at Plum Pudding Gourmet Kitchen Store. Inspired by the town’s fox-hunting scene, Aiken China is a great gift and a perfect souvenir.
Annual Downtown Tree Lighting
Why not turn shopping into a celebration? For more than three decades, the city of Aiken has celebrated the holiday season with a tree lighting ceremony, complete with live entertainment and an artisan market. Bring the whole family; in addition to crafts and snacks for kids, a special someone in a big red suit (and his jolly bride!) will be in attendance to take your special requests.
Night of 1000 Lights
Even if you checked every person off your list at the Holiday Hop, plan to make an appearance for downtown Aiken’s Night of 1,000 Lights, where a thousand twinkling luminaries guide shoppers as they stroll down Main Street. What goes well with luminaries? Christmas music, treats, and cider — all offered in abundance. “People love how festive the lights are,” says Hayley Knight, executive director of Aiken Downtown development. “The luminaries lining the street are breathtaking.”
Aiken County Farmers Market
December 14 and 21
On two special Saturdays in December, the Aiken County Farmers Market showcases unique crafts and handmade gifts for the hard-to-shop-for people on your list. You can also find holiday wreaths, Christmas trees, and the market’s usual delicious local, seasonal meat and produce — just right for a hostess gift or to throw your own impromptu holiday gathering.
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Catch a Holiday Show
Aiken is the perfect place to catch a holiday classic like The Nutcracker performed by Aiken’s Civic Ballet (December 20-22). Dancers leap as sugarplum fairies in the story of Clara and the Rat King, and our imagination runs wild.
Don’t miss Aiken Community Theatre’s rendition of A Christmas Story (December 5-8, 12-14). All of your favorite characters — 9-year-old Ralphie Parker, Higbee Department Store’s Santa Claus, and even the school bully Scut Farkas — will make an appearance. And the Friday before Christmas (December 20), settle in at the beatnik coffeehouse-inspired Bechtel Theatre, as Matthew Dickerson (a.k.a. “the Dulcimer Guy”) performs a selection of old-fashioned hymns and traditional Celtic music.
The Aiken Symphony Orchestra
Music lovers, rejoice! The Aiken Symphony Orchestra’s Home for the Holidays pops concert returns on a Saturday night at the Etherredge Center. This year’s concert features Scarlett Strallen, an English stage actress and Broadway and recording artist, singing holiday classics. Though the guest artist and program change each year, locals can count on one tradition: “The sing-along that ends the concert,” says DeeDee Vaughters, executive director of the Aiken Symphony Orchestra. “Concert attendees will be invited to join in the singing of some of their Christmas favorites.”