The Philadelphian’s 13-Step Guide to the Best Holiday Ever

Yeah, that’s right. We said ever.

A sweet rendering of the Philly skyline—complete with a tiny gingerbread William Penn—created by Bredenbeck’s Bakery in Chestnut Hill. | Photograph by Brett Thomas

A sweet rendering of the Philly skyline — complete with a tiny gingerbread William Penn — created by Bredenbeck’s Bakery in Chestnut Hill. | Photograph by Brett Thomas

Sure, there are some people who’ve been listening to Christmas music since October. For the rest of us, the holidays signal endless to-do lists, the death march of mall traffic, awkward office parties, and forced time with extended family. But with a bit of planning and know-how, navigating the holidays can be a breeze — and maybe even, gasp, fun. Consider this your holiday guidebook: how to get festive (charming tree farms! Awesome light displays! Latkes!), where to find the least-creepy mall Santas, and whether you really have to buy a gift for your kids’ bus driver. The most wonderful time of year, indeed. — Edited by Emily Goulet and Nicole Scott 

1. Do the Classics

Our very official ranking of Philly holiday traditions.

  1. The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music // If you don’t feel festive here, you can’t be helped.
  2. Longwood Gardens // No other place will make you feel so awed and so domestically inadequate at the same time.
  3. Waiting in Line at Isgro’s /// It’s cold and the line is long, but there’s camaraderie, the promise of cannoli, and an Isgro staffer coming down the line with booze.
  4. A Philly POPS Christmas // Don’t pretend you don’t freakin’ love “Silver Bells.”
  5. Latkepalooza // Four thousand potato pancakes created by 10 top chefs. What’s not to love?
  6. Comcast’s Holiday Spectacular // Making your boring office building feel hopelessly uncool since 2008.
  7. Macy’s Light Show // It’s overcrowded and possibly overrated — but we’d never not do it.
  8. Citywide Tree Lightings // Never will you see so many people get excited about electricity.
  9. Reading Terminal Market Holiday Railroad // The only trains in the city that won’t let you down.
  10. Dickens Christmas Village // A little strong on the creepy kitsch, but hey, you’re there for the light show anyway.

2. Strategize Your Shopping

Six ways to make gift-buying infinitely less painful

Philadelphia Christmas Village | Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

Philadelphia Christmas Village | Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

Eat and drink your way through it: This year, Christmas Village makes the move from LOVE Park to City Hall, transforming the space into an open-air market modeled after a traditional German Christmas village. More than 80 vendors set up shop in quaint wooden booths and sell treasures from all over the world (handmade ornaments from Germany, wooden nesting dolls from Russia, glass Christmas balls from Egypt, cozy sweaters from Ireland). Less worldly but just as good? The selection of grilled cheeses at Baked Cheese Haus, which pair perfectly with a mug of hot mulled wine from Chaddsford Winery. (The booths are conveniently located right next to each other.)

Wrap It Up!

Finished shopping? The King of Prussia mall offers gift-wrapping services on the lower level of the Court (between Bloomingdale’s and Ballard Designs), so you don’t have to curl a single ribbon this season. You can feel good about it, too — proceeds go to charity.

Avoid parking-lot wars: If you can’t completely dodge the mall, at least escape the endless parking-lot loops. The new, très fancy parking garage at the King of Prussia mall features a digital message board that shows you how many spots are available and on which level. Or ditch the garage altogether and spring for valet parking, which comes with a complimentary car wash. Post-shopping, hail the mall’s free six-person shuttle, which will whisk you and all your bags back to your car.

Shop in peace: Instead of finagling a sitter or, even worse, toting tots from store to store, take advantage of the Play Café’s weekly “Drop and Shop” program. For $10 per hour per child, parents can drop kids off at the Bryn Mawr play space from 1 to 5 p.m. every Wednesday in December. Kids need to be potty-trained, and you have to call ahead. (They’ve got a strict one-adult-to-five-children ratio.) In the end, kids will get to enjoy a Lego loft, a drawing wall, a dress-up area and holiday crafts — and you’ll get blissful hours of solo shopping time.

Make it festive: Chestnut Hill is already impossibly adorable. But during its Stag & Doe Nights (held every Wednesday evening leading up to Christmas), it becomes a veritable Christmas-movie set, with thousands of twinkling lights, roaming carolers, brass quartets and honest-to-God roasted chestnuts. Shops stay open late and offer light bites and drinks, and parking is gloriously free. Which is nice, because you’ll never want to leave.

Take a break — and plan it wisely: On December 17th, Spanish tapas restaurant Jamonera, typically only open for dinner service, welcomes Midtown Village shoppers for a cozy (boozy) midday break. After you work your way up 13th Street (making stops at Duross & Langel, Verde, Paper on Pine, Bella Turka and Open House), stop in for bourbon-spiked hot chocolate, house-made eggnog, spicy hot cider and churros. Way better than a mall food court.

Let someone else do the picking: Totally clueless about what to buy for your four-year-old nephew? Let a pro do the job. Call the gift whisperers at Old City toy shop Momo’s Tree House, tell them a bit about the child (age, hobbies, likes, dislikes), and give them a price point and a little bit of time (usually, they can do it on the spot). They’ll pluck the perfect present from their vast selection, wrap it for free, and have it ready for you. All you have to do is swing by and pick it up — and then take all the credit.

3. Cut Down Your Own Christmas Tree

One trip to these local farms and you’ll never consider a fake fir again.

Delaware County: Linvilla Orchards // For the lazy: Delco’s favorite megafarm will shuttle you out to the tree fields on a hayride, haul your tree back for you, and wrap it up and tie it to your car. Easiest outdoor adventure ever. 598 Linvill Road, Media.

Illustration by Charlie Layton

Illustration by Charlie Layton

South Jersey: Exley’s Christmas Tree Farms // Let kids wander through Exley’s Santa Land play houses and indoor train displays; take them on a hayride and children’s train ride; and then let them hang with Santa in a holiday treehouse. We guarantee they’ll sleep the whole way home. 1535 Tanyard Road, Sewell.

Chester County: Adams Christmas Trees // How to (literally) go green: The trees here are grown without pesticides, insecticides or petroleum-based fertilizers. A tree- hugger’s delight. 260 Hopewell Road, Elverson.

Montgomery County: Varner Farms // While there’s nothing wrong with being ferried to tree fields by a John Deere, it’s way more charming to take the ride in an actual horse-drawn wagon. Bonus: free hot chocolate and cider. 746 South Trappe Road, Collegeville.

Bucks County:  Colavita Christmas Tree Farm // Not only will the staff at this family-run farm help you choose from the 42 varieties of trees available on their 14 acres; they can also deliver yours to your house, set it up for you, and take it down post-holidays. Even better? All trees you cut, no matter the size, cost a flat $60. 1761 Dolington Road, Yardley.

Lehigh Valley: Crystal Spring Tree Farm // This farm has provided the White House’s Blue Room Christmas tree twice in the past 10 years. If a tree is good enough for POTUS, it’s good enough for us. 2424 Mahoning Drive East, Lehighton.

Want more cut-your-own tree farms? Check out Be Well Philly’s comprehensive list.

4. Booze Up Your Guests

The easiest way to rule the holiday party circuit — and smooth over family tension: Ladle up generous portions of this Sparkling Gin Berry Punch from A.Bar mixologist and Spirit Forward co-founder Dan Hamm.

drink

Photograph by Jillian Guyette

Ingredients
Makes about 45 servings

8 oz. (plus more for garnish) dried cranberries
6 chamomile tea bags
12 oz. organic honey
2 c. fresh lemon juice
2 750-ml. bottles gin
2 liter bottles club soda
Orange slices for garnish

Method

  1. Bring about 6.5 cups of water and dried cranberries to a boil.
  2. Immediately remove from heat and steep chamomile tea in the water according to instructions, leaving cranberries in.
  3. Remove tea bags and add honey. Stir to combine, then strain. Allow this mixture to completely cool in the refrigerator. Once cooled, add lemon juice and gin.
  4. To serve, pour into your favorite punch bowl, add a few large ice cubes, and top with club soda. Garnish with extra dried cranberries and fresh orange slices. Serve over ice.

5. Try These Treats

Philly’s best, most beloved bakeries spill their holiday top-sellers, so you know what to order when you (finally) make it up to the counter.

Photograph by Jillian Guyette

Photograph by Jillian Guyette

1. Sugar cookie // Sweet Freedom Bakery, multiple locations.

2. Almond macaroon // DiBartolo Bakery, Collingswood.
From Thanksgiving through the New Year, DiBartolo’s sells nearly one million macaroons.

Pro Tip

To keep cookies fresh, refrigerate those that you can (ricotta cookies, macaroons, pignolis) and keep others (like butter cookies) in a tin canister­—not plastic Tupperware.

3. Ricotta cookie // Isgro Pastries, South Philly.
Isgro’s has been selling this classic sponge cookie for more than a century.

4. Springerle // Haegele’s Bakery, Mayfair.

5. Butter cookie // Denise’s, North Philly.

6. Chocolate chip cookie // Clay’s Creative Corner, Bakery, Berwyn.

7. Pignoli // Termini Brothers, multiple locations.
Termini orders more than $45,000 in pine nuts every holiday season for this cookie.

6. Sleuth Out Your Santa

A red-suited roundup to help you pick your perfect Saint Nick

Photo courtesy Ashley Primis

Photo courtesy Ashley Primis

The Champagne Santa: Cherry Hill Mall

The mall’s elaborate Santa scene is so large, workers start building it in October. It’s billed as a “DreamPlace” experience, complete with Santa’s workshop, a virtual roller coaster and, oh, a price tag of up to $75.

The Beer Santa: Philly AIDS Thrift

Santa might smell like he just left McGlinchey’s. His beard might be askew. Your child might scream in terror. It’s BYO-camera. But you’ll walk away with the best—free!—Santa pic ever. (Proof: The photo above.)

The Skyscraper Santa: One Liberty Observation Deck

For the first time, kids can regale Santa with their wish lists 57 stories above Center City—and use the sweeping views of the region to point him and his sleigh in the right direction.

The OG Santa: King of Prussia Mall

Two extravagant holiday setups feature professionally trained Santas who sport real beards. Because when it comes to Claus conspiracy theorists, authenticity goes a long way.

The Pet Santa: Hotel Palomar

For true pet obsessives: On December 10th, the pet-friendly Rittenhouse hotel lets you bring your canine child for pictures with Santa. You can bring your cat, too, if you’re that kind of person.

7. Know Where to Hide

Had your fill of family and festive cheer? Cut out to these watering holes that are blessedly open on Christmas Day.

Best Bet

Before you retreat to Lambertville Station Inn, head to the annual reenactment of Washington’s Delaware River crossing, which happens each Christmas at 1 p.m. just a few minutes down the river.

The kitchen at the Pub On Passyunk East is closed on Christmas Day, but the bar is definitely open. And because the bar staff has to work that day, regulars have been known to bring in plates of leftovers for them, just so they don’t get blue. How’s that for Christmas spirit? 1501 East Passyunk Avenue, East Passyunk.

Not only is American Sardine Bar open, with normal service and a late-night happy hour (11 p.m. to 1 a.m.); manager Joe Shotkus has instructed the staff to “Griswold the f***” out of the outdoor patio, so we’re guessing you can expect quite a light display. 1800 Federal Street, Point Breeze.

To really burrow away, head to the subterranean wine cellar of the Lambertville Station Inn — a warren of cozy nooks and crannies where you can sip boutique wines and cocktails in peace. 11 Bridge Street, Lambertville

Dedicated drinkers know that if you’re looking for a place to imbibe during the holidays, the Khyber Pass Pub should be at the top of your list. The crew isn’t doing anything special for the day, but they’re open, and that’s special enough all on its own. 56 South 2nd Street, Old City.

For a certain Tom Waits-ian segment of the population, there’s no better place to ride out Christmas than at Philly’s favorite dive, Dirty Franks. And we can guarantee you won’t be doing it alone. 347 South 13th Street, Midtown Village.

8. Have the Best Tree On the Block

Valley Forge Flowers president Barbara King on the science of tree-trimming

bestree3

Illustration by Charlie Layton

 

9. Rethink Your Family Traditions

Try these outside-the-box alternatives.

Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest | Photo by Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest | Photo by Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

Christmas Celebration at Adventure Aquarium // Forget reindeer:  Scuba Santa glides around a 760,000-gallon tank with sharks, sea turtles and stingrays. Be prepared to explain how he got in there without a chimney.

Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest // You’ve been able to ice-skate by the river for years, but it’s the addition of Winterfest (booze, food, arcade games, a heated winter wonderland tent) that makes this an insta-classic.

Storybook Land Christmas // It’s South Jersey’s best-kept secret: Through December 30th, more than a million lights illuminate this kiddie amusement park in Egg Harbor Township. Best part? Experiencing the rides at night.

A Very Jewish Christmas at Zahav // Make the takeout-and-a-movie cliché an (upscale) reality: For $70 you’ll get a family-style Cambodian feast and a movie screening served in the wee hours of Christmas Eve.

Teddy Bear Tea at the Rittenhouse Hotel // It’s $60 per person, but kids get a new Gund bear — and the chance to experience formal high tea at the city’s poshest hotel. Take that, American Girl.

Holiday Sing-Along at Tavern on Camac // The piano bar at this Gayborhood institution is always festive, but in December, the reindeer sweaters come out and Bing and Mariah make their way onto the set list.

Holiday Lights Bike Ride // The best way to see Philly holiday lights is on two wheels. On December 15th, the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia leads a (free!) seven-mile tour of the brightest displays in South Philly.

Being ____ at Christmas // This annual event at the National Museum of Jewish History offers families who don’t celebrate Christmas—or those who want to celebrate it in a new, untraditional way—fun activities on Christmas Day. The annual December 25th festivities include face painting, storytelling, art projects, live music and more.

Running of the Santas // What started as a small bar crawl in Manayunk in 1998 has turned into a less obnoxious version of the Erin Express. This year on December 10th expect live music, drink specials, and 10,000 Saint Nicks jogging from Field House to the Electric Factory.

Franklin Square Holiday Festival // For the kids: Putt-putt, a ride on the Holiday Express train, meet-and-greets with Elsa and Chewbacca, cookie decorating in a heated tent. For you: Beer garden.

10. See the Best Holiday Lights

Be wowed. Be dazzled. Be happy you don’t live next door.

Holiday Lights in South Philadelphia | Photo by J. Fusco for GPTMC

Holiday Lights in South Philadelphia | Photo by J. Fusco for GPTMC

For a mega-watt production, visit Shady Brook Farm: More than three million lights stretch out over two miles, from twinkling tunnels to large-scale renderings of the Seven Wonders of the World. Drive along the path ($25 a carload) or meander through on an open-air wagon ($12 per person), then cap off the night with s’mores and hot cocoa by the bonfire. 931 Stony Hill Road, Yardley.

Franklin Square’s Electrical Spectacle Holiday Light Show balances bulbs (more than 50,000 of them, dancing to a soundtrack by the Philly POPS) with booze (a winter beer garden each weekend, and plenty of fire pits) and shopping. 6th and Race streets, Philly.

But the most elegant displays still come out of Longwood Gardens, where more than half a million lights set the vast grounds a-twinkle. Plus: occasional wandering carolers (generally from 5 to 8 p.m.), outdoor fountain shows, and more poinsettias than you’ve ever seen in one place. You have to pre-buy tickets (starting at $20 for adults; kids under four are free); print ’em at home to avoid long lines. 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square.

South Philly is ground zero for all-in neighborhood participation. Head to Miracle on South 13th Street (the 1600 block) for total movie-set charm—and a hefty dose of kitsch. Then make your way to the 2700 block of Smedley Street, where every single house teams up to create a wonderland of lights and inflatables.

Behind the Bulbs

It takes Joe Drelick eight weeks to set up his light display — and since he switched over to LED lights, his average December electric bill is just $600. Last year, more than 12,000 people came through.

For a Griswoldian experience, visit the Drelick home in Harleysville (1800 Dutchmans Circle), where owner Joe and family transform their front yard into a (free!) walkable interactive light park that features 35,000 lights and 26 push buttons that set the handmade displays to dancing or singing. Lights go on at 5:30 p.m. and turn off at 9:30.

Over in Ambler, Light Up a Life, Jack Yoast’s residential production, features enough LED lights and animated figures to be seen from space—or at least from Route 309. All donations go to local causes; the light show has raised more than $50,000 in recent years. 1320 East Butler Pike, Ambler.

In Cranbury, New Jersey — totally worth the hour-long trip from Philly — there’s Keith Shaw’s Cranbury Christmas Lights, a free three-hour light show (6 to 9 p.m.) crowned by a 36-foot-tall tree bedecked with more lights than the one at Rockefeller Center. BYO marshmallows for the fire pits. 128 North Main Street, Cranbury.

11. Build the Perfect Fire

Tim Welch, owner of Ardmore-based Main Line Chimney Company, on the finesse of flame-starting

Step 1: Open damper and look for blockages. Nothing? Proceed. (Blockages? Er, call Tim.)

PerfectFire-step1

Step 2: Place a few newspaper balls (no glossy paper or colored ink!) in center of grate. Surround with teepee stack of kindling.

PerfectFire-step2

Step 3: Lay two larger logs on either side of kindling pile, running front to back. Stack two smaller logs crosswise on top of these.

PerfectFire-step3

Step 4: Roll several pages of newspaper into a long roll and light end. Put flame end into damper opening, to prime flue. Wait for airflow to go upward through chimney, then light newspaper balls.

PerfectFire-step4

Step 5: Add one or two logs as necessary to keep flame burning. Note: Only burn one Duraflame log at a time. Choose a Java-Log, made from recycled coffee grounds, for best aroma.

PerfectFire-step5

Step 6: When fire is out, close damper, rake through the ashes, then sweep them into a container and dispose of them. Raise arms in victory, Fire Master.

PerfectFire-step6

Illustrations by Charlie Layton

12. Don’t Be Stingy

You might be tempted to bypass those bell-swinging volunteers — but don’t. Last year, the Salvation Army’s ubiquitous Red Kettle campaign raised $370,000 in Philly, which went directly to citywide programs that help support after-school learning, foster care, job training, transitional housing and more. It’s the easiest way to de-Scrooge. Besides, you don’t need another chestnut mocha praline peppermint choc-a-latte anyway.

13. Whittle Down Your Gift List

Navigate the sticky politics of gift-giving with advice from Gail Madison, founder of Huntington Valley’s Madison School of Etiquette and Protocol.

WhoTo Gift?Give
Kid's teacherAlwaysSomething around $20, like a nice box of stationery, a gift card, or a donation to a charity in his/her name. No cash.
HairstylistAbsolutelyMoney — about the cost of a typical visit. (When giving cash, make sure it’s crisp and new.)
Regular babysitterYesAn average night's pay.
Kids' bus driverSureA good box of candy or other consumable in the $10 range. (“I love HomeGoods for this,” Madison says.)
Priest/rabbiNoHow ’bout you just actually show up to service sometime?
DoormanYesA cash tip from $50 to $100, depending on level of service.
BossMehIf you have a great relationship, a bottle of his/her favorite wine. No hard liquor.
MailpersonYesA cash tip based on level of service; no more than $20.

This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.