A Very Merry Charleston Christmas

Liz Youngs

Charleston has become a world-class destination, but deep in its heart, Charleston is still a small, southern town with a rich heritage, friendly polite people, and some of the most iconic landmarks in the United States if not the world.  From its cobblestone streets of downtown to gorgeous barrier island beaches to rich fertile farmlands, Charleston is a beautiful, magical place year-round, but it’s even more spectacular during the holidays. Iconic pre-Civil War antebellum mansions, historic homes and gardens, churches, art galleries, cafes, unique shops, and so much more, the city glows brighter this time of year. And, there is something for everyone. 

The Holy City shows her best and brightest colors during the holidays with decorations and festivities galore.  Take a leisurely walk down Meeting Street, East Bay, and King Street, or any of the side streets and you will notice the shops, restaurants, hotels, homes, and churches all fully decked out in holiday greens, reds, and white lights.  There’s an extra feeling of joy in the air, and it’s not to be missed in this wonderful, southern port city.

Of particular note, the many gorgeous Charleston hotels celebrate with magnificent and numerous wreaths, fresh cut greens, giant live trees, white, pink and, red ribbons and bows.  Many of the holiday decorations embrace the traditional southern style by incorporating everything from pineapples, apples, pears, magnolia flowers, and palm leaves to sweet grass and oak vines into their decorations. You don’t have to be a guest to walk in and enjoy holiday cocktails or a fabulous meal and take in the festive atmosphere. Doors are open and everyone is welcome.  Many offer gorgeous rooftops for taking in spectacular sky-views of the Holy City. Smaller more quaint and gorgeous B&B’s are absolutely stunning at the holidays and well worth walking into just to look around.

As Charleston is a walking city, getting out during the holidays for a stroll through the many historic residential neighborhoods is highly recommended.  Some of the most beautiful decorations can be seen on these streets where many homes display old-fashioned hurricane lamps with candles, woodland and other stuffed animals set on window seals, fresh fruit in bowls, or perhaps a toy sleigh with Santa at the ready.  Many have more than one Christmas tree glowing from their windows.  Also well-known for hand crafted wrought iron gates, stop and peer through to see gorgeous inviting gardens, many of which are decorated with lights, benches with baskets, decorated trees and more.  For a guided tour of the city, Charleston’s own Bulldog Tours offers one of the best.

Numerous churches are open throughout the day, and worth walking in to. Every denomination exists here in Charleston while church bells ring at different times from all sizes and shapes of bell towers.  Providing a time for reflection while admiring simple and often extravagant decorations, the churches celebrate this time of year with live greens, nativity scenes, locally sourced magnolia leaves, vines, and more.  If you have time to attend any holiday service, you will be sure to enjoy the many sounds of the season through hymns and music, prayers and sermon.  Of particular importance to the city now is Mother Emanuel – one of the loveliest and welcoming churches in the city.

Carriage tours are particularly wonderful during the holidays. Horses are decorated with bells and bows, and there is such a festive feeling in the air. Touring the city by horse-drawn carriage brings a feeling of old-world charm.  Wrap yourself up in a blanket and take along some hot chocolate as you see the holiday sights and hear the festive sounds.  As these beautiful animals guide their carriages through cobblestoned streets, the clip-clop of the horse hooves and jingle of the bells around their neck seems to be right out of a Charles Dickens Christmas story.

As a matter of fact, A Christmas Story is an annual holiday tradition at the oldest performance theatre in the United States, the Dock Street Theatre, located right in downtown Charleston.  Each year, the cherished tale of A Christmas Story brings excitement, celebration and good cheer to young and old.  White Christmas is another wonderful holiday production offered at this iconic theater.  If you have not gotten your tickets yet, there may be a few left!

All around the city of Charleston the holiday celebrations are enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. From the Festival of Lights at James Island County Park, to the Parade of Boats along the Charleston Harbor, the many historic Plantations offer unique ways to celebrate the season from children's holidays craft-making, candle light tours, specialty Christmas gifts and so much more.

For a totally unique experience, drive 30 minutes outside of Charleston to Mepkin Abbey, a community of Roman Catholic Monks, established in 1949.  The Abbey has one of the most scenic walking tours, and offers one of the most scenic views of live oaks draped in moss along river banks.  Each year at the holidays the Abbey hosts their Creche Festival, a fascinating display of crèche’s from around the world. A stop at the fabulous gift store is a must.

The Charleston Holiday Market is held every weekend at Marion Square with a Christmas tree, surrounded by holiday vendors offering everything from delicious baked goods, to handmade crafts and more.  The Square is surrounded by some of the city’s best hotels, restaurants, and shops, all within walking distance. 

As a global food destination, Charleston offers more 5-star restaurants than most cities in America. Options for outstanding farm-to-table fare, iconic landmark restaurants, hot spots for specialty cocktails, and fun breweries are in abundance here.  TripAdvisor and Charleston Eater offer some great recommendations for all tastes. Be sure to do your research and find what’s best suited to you and get your reservations early.

One of the most unique and cherished things to do in Charleston is to take a Gullah Tour.   The tour takes you on a step back in time from the perspective of the African American residents, some of the earliest settlers to the area.  The Gullah culture is richly preserved in Charleston.  Be sure to consider purchasing one of the specialty hand-made gift items from ornaments, to boxes and baskets.

Whatever you decide to do for the holidays in Charleston, options are many, and you cannot go wrong.  There’s always something wonderful and exciting going on all season!  Celebrate the glorious sights and sounds southern-style and enjoy this vibrant world class city in all its holiday splendor.  Have yourself a very merry Charleston Christmas!