Holiday Traditions in Raleigh, N.C.
Tuesday, November 06, 2018, 3pm by visitRaleigh
Note: The below events and activities are from a previous year. For safe, distance-friendly ideas in 2020—light displays, drive-in movies and more—please see this updated page. Thanks and happy holidays!
The holidays are the perfect time to come together with friends and family, celebrating the magic of the season and taking part in the Raleigh area's holiday traditions, old and new. This list, full of events and activities in N.C.'s capital city area, should get you started on planning special ways to capture the holiday spirit this season. From performing arts productions to incredible light displays, these are some of the tried-and-true and can't-miss things to do during the holidays.
The largest Christmas parade between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., will march through downtown Raleigh for more than two hours, drawing nearly 60,000 visitors to the streets to see marching bands, dancers, classic cars, superheroes and Santa Claus. Bring the whole family (including pets!) plus some chairs—there's great street-side viewing everywhere on the 1.4-mile route.
Annual North Hills Tree Lighting
The annual lighting of a 41-foot-tall Christmas tree, a visit from Santa Claus, trackless train rides for kids, live music and plenty of vendors on hand make this celebration an equally-great event for families and a fun date idea. Arrive a tad early to join in on the Holiday Sip & Shop to knock out some shopping at local retailers like Peter Millar, Quail Ridge Books, Scout & Molly's plus more while enjoying complimentary hot chocolate and cider.
If you can only see one or two of the nearly 200 performances by the North Carolina Symphony each year, this may be the time to do it! Special performances include The Merry Elf! (11/21), Holiday Pops Spectacular (11/23-24), Holiday Cirque Spectacular (12/21-22), A Candlelight Christmas (12/23) and New Year's Eve: Vienna With a Twist (12/31).
Wendell Wonderland/Lake Myra Christmas Lights
Light show runs Nov. 21-Dec. 31; Wendell Wonderland festival is Dec. 7
A perfect chance to experience historic downtown Wendell, with a visit from Santa Claus, trolley rides through town, live music local vendors and more. One of the area's most popular light shows, the Lake Myra Christmas light display will also be in full swing, featuring more than 400,000 lights—and it's all free! Wendell Wonderland is a one-night event, but the light show runs daily through the end of the year.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical
Nov. 23-Dec. 23
Based on the animated television special "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and the stage production directed and conceived by Jeff Frank and First Stage, the characters you know and love—Rudolph, the Abominable Snowman, Santa and Mrs. Claus and more—come to life in this Broadway Series South production. And here's a tip: Stroll through downtown Raleigh before or after the show for a great meal or to get some shopping done.
North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival-Cary
Nov. 23, 2018-Jan. 13, 2019
A super trip-worthy event for the whole family returns for a fourth straight year! The North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival brings more than 20 larger-than-life lanterns to Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary. Made up of thousands of LED lights, displays light up the skies and mesmerize visitors on this one-hour walking tour (have your cameras ready for the spectacular Chinese Dragon that sits on Symphony Lake!). Beyond beautiful lanterns, the ticketed festival also welcomes a showcase of Chinese culture—nightly performances (6:30, 7:30 and 8:30pm) featuring martial arts, traditional dance, acrobatics, drum performances and more.
Downtown Raleigh Tree Lighting Celebration
Save the date for the Downtown Raleigh Tree Lighting Celebration! Arrive early for dinner and socializing in downtown with family and friends, then make your way to the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts to enjoy some tasty snacks and beverages from local vendors, holiday music and the opportunity to meet Santa Claus as he walks around the crowd meeting and greeting everyone (bring your cameras!). For the grande finale, Mayor Nancy McFarlane will take the stage to light downtown Raleigh's tree.
Christmas on Salem Street
Nov. 30-Dec. 2
Christmas carols, a tree lighting, horse-drawn carriages, cookie decorating and a visit from Santa in charming historic downtown Apex—this annual tradition has so much to love. Don't miss the Grand Christmas Parade on Sat.!
A Christmas Carol, presented by Theatre In The Park
This theater production from local passionate mind Ira David Wood III, celebrating its 44th year this holiday season, has wowed more than a million guests throughout the years. The beloved musical comedy, in which Wood himself puts on an incredible performance as Scrooge, has been a longstanding tradition for families in the area—tickets tend to go quickly so plan ahead!
State Capitol Tree Lighting Ceremony
With luminaries lighting the Capitol grounds and local choral groups filling the air with seasonal songs, the lighting of the tree at the North Carolina State Capitol building is a sign for many that the holiday season is officially here. After the lighting of the tree, stick around to tour the inside of the Capitol, covered in wreaths and draped in garland.
Holiday Express at Pullen Park (sold out)
Dec. 6-9; Dec. 11-16
This year-round favorite destination for families is now all dressed up for the holiday season, festively decorated with thousands of lights. The major attractions? A rideable, miniature train that meanders through and around the park plus a carousel that keeps kids of all ages happy for hours. Note: This incredibly-popular event sells out tickets quickly when they go on sale in mid-July—mark your calendars to plan ahead for next year!
47th Annual Historic Oakwood Candlelight Tour
Historic Oakwood, a community of homes, many of which are dated to the mid 1800s to early 1900s, has its own small town feel. Elegantly decorated for the holidays, you can step inside about a dozen private homes, staffed with docents who tell the rich history of this Century Victorian neighborhood.
The Nutcracker, presented by Carolina Ballet
Grace, grandeur and mysterious illusions. Carolina Ballet's holiday classic is a can't-miss tradition for locals, visitors, families and friends. The only production in the country using illusions created by renowned magician Rick Thomas, The Nutcracker will make characters levitate, disappear and reappear before your eyes in 14 performances at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.
24th Annual Kwanzaa Celebration
A celebration for all people, focusing on family and friends, Town of Cary and the Ujima Group, Inc., will host the 24th annual Kwanzaa Celebration at the Cary Arts Center. The theme for this year's celebration is "Working to Build A Kind and Just World" and will feature a performance by percussionist Bradley Simmons followed by a fashion show under the direction of Phylicia Nicole Barker, plus performances by Collage Dance Company, vocalist Shannon Grier and more.
First Night Raleigh
Raleigh's biggest New Year celebration fills the city's center with crowds and activities: entertainment, tons of live music, vendors and an epic grand finale that sees a giant copper acorn drop from the sky as the clock strikes midnight.
Visiting one of Raleigh's most treasured, family-owned restaurants is never a bad idea. Open for more than 55 years, Angus Barn is an institution—an award-winning steakhouse with one of the largest wine cellars in the country. During the holidays, gorgeous decorations adorn the red barn building inside and out. It's no wonder visitors who have experienced Angus Barn around this time keep returning year after year.
The holiday season is one of the most popular times of the year to head to the movie theaters, so try out this unique experience: The Cary Theater, housed in a historic property in downtown Cary, opened up in 2014 and offering independent film showings, music and other live performances. They'll be showing seasonal movies including "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "The Man Who Invented Christmas," "Miracle on 34th Street," "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Polar Express" and "Elf" before the end of the year.
More Raleigh Area Town Tree Lightings and Events
In addition to the town main street events mentioned above (in Wendell and Apex), look out for even more festive events in the towns surrounding Raleigh on our holiday events page. For starters, join in on the Fuquay-Varina Town Tree Lighting (11/29), Garner's Light Up Main (11/30) and the Morrisville Tree Lighting (11/30) the weekend after Thanksgiving!
Header photo: via North Hills and Terrence Jones Photography