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Travels in the Heartland: The charm of small town holiday celebrations

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Posted at 5:11 PM, Dec 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-23 18:48:40-05

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — As a kid living in rural Nebraska, my family would spend a December evening driving through other small towns checking out their holiday lights and public decorations. We'd often cover more than 100 miles and drive through seven or eight communities before finishing with a drive around our town of Oakland, Nebraska. Today, neighborhoods could challenge Clark Griswold in a contest to create their own "Christmas Vacation" displays. Yet, there's still something about getting out of town and checking out what's going on in other communities.

Here are a few recommendations to help spread holiday cheer.

Minden

Proclaimed Nebraska's "Christmas City" by then-Gov. Ben Nelson in 1996, Minden rivals Clark Griswold's decorating scheme. The town, about two-and-a-half hours west of Omaha, turns the Kearney County Courthouse red and green, stringing lights from the top of its dome and covering windows with green and red shutters. The scene is festive and beautiful as the night grows darker. The lights shine nightly through Jan. 1.

The tradition started in 1915 when the town's light commissioner ran a string of lights from the train depot to the town square to impress visitors attending a Grand Army of the Republic (Civil War Union Army) convention. Freezing rain prevented the lights from working.

Undaunted, he hand-dipped lights in red and green paint and decorated the courthouse square at Christmas. The tradition has been going strong for more than a century.

With a Christmas pageant hosted on Thanksgiving weekend and the first two Sundays of December (including this weekend), the outdoor event starts at 7 p.m. and lasts about 30 minutes. Then, the courthouse lights are illuminated.

Spend some time at local attractions and stores before the lights come on. The historical opera house across the street from the courthouse is decorated for the season and definitely worth visiting. Earp's Pioneer Village offers a unique look into history from the mid-1850s through the 1960s.

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Children visit Santa in Missouri Valley

Missouri Valley

It's Santa Claus vs. the Grinch in downtown Missouri Valley Saturday during the city's annual Merry Main Street event on Saturday. The two Christmas characters highlight activities along the western Iowa city's downtown.

The Grinch will roam Main Street throughout the day, surprising shoppers at several businesses such as Fisher’s Petals and Posies and Zaiser Embroidery, participating in a shop local campaign. It's a great opportunity to support small businesses while finding unique holiday gifts.

Holiday music will play on the street and Missouri Valley High School's chorus will be singing carols.

Children can go shopping for their parents at the Rand Center from 9 a.m. to Noon. They can purchase donated items for $1 and volunteers will wrap the gifts for them. The 35-year event raised $200 for a local food pantry in 2020.

Santa Claus will meet with children from 2 to 3:30 p.m. at the center. Visitors can enjoy cookies and milk while children review their lists with Santa. At the same time, the Grinch will pose for photos with children at Busy Bee's Playground.

The Rialto Theater will host a free showing of "Clifford the Big Red Dog" at 4 p.m. for 90 children.

After the day's events, grab dinner in town and take a self-guided tour around Missouri Valley checking out neighborhood light displays.

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Dining room ready for Christmas at Arbor Lodge

Nebraska City

Arbor Lodge Mansion State Historical Park hosts a throwback holiday observance during Christmas at the Mansion, Friday to Sunday through Dec. 19. The J. Sterling Morton mansion, which resembles the White House in Washington, DC, is decorated to replicate holiday celebrations during the time the family lived there. Wreathes wrap around the dark wood staircases, along with a collection of nutcrackers. Christmas trees decorated in 1800s style are located throughout the house. Enjoy self-guided tours of the home, including the one-lane bowling alley in the basement, with admission.

Holiday Trolley Tour of Lights includes an hour-long trolley ride around town as you enjoy neighborhood Christmas light displays. The tour includes a reading of a classic holiday book. The trolley departs from Lied Lodge at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Shenandoah

The southwest Iowa hometown of the Everly Brothers lights up during the holiday season with a 1,000-light Christmas tree downtown along with lit reindeer on the main street’s corners. As you walk along the historical street, check out the state’s Walk of Fame, home to historic figures such as President Herbert Hoover, George Stout (World War II’s Monuments Men}, Milo Hamilton and Earl May. Each Saturday through Christmas, Santa Claus will meet children from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Everly Brothers childhood home with cookies and treats for the kids. Shenandoah’s kindergarten to 8th-grade school hosts a "cookies and cocoa" event at 10 a.m. on Dec. 18, where youngsters can create their own holiday cookies.

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Dinosaurs at Papillion's Santa Rock N Lights

Drive-thru lights

Drive-thru holiday light shows have become popular in recent years and they’ve started to explode in eastern Nebraska. Attractions in Papillion, Lincoln and Seward allow visitors to soak in the holiday spirit while enjoying the comfort of their vehicles. Each show offers something different for visitors while sticking with Christmas music favorites, such as “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

Magical Lights of Seward, in its second year, features a 30-foot long piano synchronized to portray playing Christmas tunes. It also includes a display that honors military veterans and first responders.

In Lincoln, Haymarket Park transforms into a winter wonderland during the Nebraska Christmas Lights Show nightly through Jan. 1. Thousands of colorful lights twinkle as visitors drive through the display featuring lit trees, penguins, Santa and more. Tickets can be purchased online for the vehicle – even busses up to 20 feet long are allowed – and used any night.

At Papillion’s Werner Park, vehicles travel through tunnels with twinkling lights overhead, Santas on motorcycles and even dinosaurs celebrate the holiday. Santa’s Rock N Lights show covers more than a mile in the Sarpy County baseball stadium’s parking lot. With the light display showing nightly through Jan. 2, it’s 20 minutes of pure holiday happiness.

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Decorated farm irrigation system in Fremont, Nebraska

Old-fashioned small town tours

You can create your own holiday light tour by visiting area towns and taking in their public holiday displays. We recreated my childhood memory a few years ago when we drove through the towns my family toured, including Blair, Fremont, Hooper, Scribner, Tekamah and West Point. Rural towns know how to decorate for the season and offer an opportunity to get of town for a few hours and check out new displays and attractions.

However you decide to celebrate the holiday season, it’s fun to take some time and check out the neighboring communities’ attractions. Grab some hot chocolate or cider and some cookies to add to your holiday travels. Speaking of cookies…Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

To read more Travels in the Heartland articles visit the section on our website.

Visit The Walking Tourists website for even more Midwestern adventures.

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