We all have our favorite family holiday traditions, whether it’s viewing an annual light display, cutting down a fresh Christmas tree, or having breakfast with Santa. All good stuff, to be sure. But if you’re looking to shake things up this year, try an experience you won't find at your local mega-mall.
One option is to go small: New Jersey’s charming small towns play host to a variety of quaint holiday happenings, from Dickens carolers to Christmas Candlelight House Tours.
If you're after something truly unique, NJ has plenty of that, too. You can celebrate Christmas Underwater at Adventure Aquarium, get festive with the furry residents of Bluebird Farm Alpacas, or explore an animated wonderland at the Christmas Ice Caverns.
Who knows? One of these activities might become your family’s new holiday favorite. Check out our roundup below for some great small-town and off-the-beaten-path fun. For more ways to celebrate the festive holiday season, visit our Holiday Fun Guide.
Check out the gorgeous greenery at the Festival of Trees in Chester. Photo courtesy of Chester Township.
The historic town is brimming with holiday cheer this year.
- December 2-9: The Festival of Trees features a spectacular display of holiday trees decorated by local individuals, families, and businesses, which are auctioned off to benefit the Senior Resource Center.
- December 2, 9 & 16: The Manhattan Holiday Dickens Carolers perform through downtown streets.
- December 16: Amazingly talented ice carvers from Ice Works create dazzling displays.
- Plus, you’ll find Santa every Saturday and Sunday at Alstede Farm through December 24; or make a reservation to have breakfast with the big guy on December 3.
Jody’s Silk Florist and Patio Center is home to the Christmas Ice Caverns, NJ’s largest walk-through animated Christmas display.
- Open now through December 26, the 10,000-square-foot winter wonderland includes characters sleighriding in the snow, Santa’s candy factory, a reindeer feeding barn, and life-size Nativity. Kids can also take a photo with one of NJ’s most popular Santas (hours vary).
RELATED: A Dozen Must-Do Holiday Activities for NJ Kids
The mini Dickens Village sets up shop in Maplewood every holiday season. Photo courtesy of Mark Slade.
Maplewood’s charming downtown gets even sweeter with a mini Dickens Village pop-up.
- December 2: Dickens Village officially opens when Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive in town right in time for the annual town tree lighting.
- December 9: Enjoy breakfast with Santa and Mrs. Claus at several village eateries, then stick around for horse & wagon rides, a petting zoo, and storytime.
- December 16: Hear a choral performance by local students, and make crafts at the Memorial Library.
- December 18: A menorah lighting kicks off the Jewish Festival of Lights.
Experience the magic of the Christmas season in a town rich in history and tradition.
- December 1–10: Nearly 200 gingerbread creations, which run the gamut from campground scenes submitted by scouts to more extreme feats of architecture, are on display at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum.
- December 2-3: Take a Holly Walk through town and visit six local historic sites and museums decorated for the holidays on a single ticket.
- December 3-4: History buffs will love traveling back in time for Winter on the Home Front: A Civil War Christmas, complete with an officer’s ball, music, dancing, and costumes.
- Morristown Green turns into a mini North Pole with Santa visits, miniature train rides, ornament making, Christmas musical performance,s and more festive activities every weekend through December 22.
Opportunities abound in this Bergen County town to get close to the big guy in red.
- December 1: Hop aboard Santa’s trackless train to check out the town’s annual tree lighting, with entertainment provided by the high school marching band.
- December 2: Santa visits Columbia Bank for gifts and pictures. Then, head to Bow-Tie Cinemas for a free screening of Elf.
- December 2, 9, 16 & 23: Visit Santa at his house in the center of town in Van Neste Square, where he’ll be making a list and checking it twice—and posing for photos.
Wow your little animal lovers with a trip to an alpaca farm for a unique, hands-on experience.
- Bluebird Farm welcomes visitors to meet their gentle residents every weekend in December. There will be craft making, alpaca feeding, and opportunities for shopping and holiday photos.
Escape to an old-fashioned winter village at this festive riverside town.
- December 13: The town’s menorah lighting takes place at the Red Bank train station.
- Saturday and Sundays through December 23, participate in a calendar chock-full of free events, such as a holiday scavenger hunt, horse and buggy rides, and performances by choirs, carolers, and musicians.
- Want to meet Santa? He’ll be hanging out at The Galleria Saturday and Sundays until December 23.
The popular shopping district hosts a seasonal holiday market just in time for all your family's holiday shopping needs.
- December 2-3, 9-10: Skip the mall and shop local at Marketspace, a holiday pop-up shop featuring everything from handcrafted wares to high-end gifts, many from local makers. Gift-wrapping will be available on site.
Historic Smithville is known for it's Light Show on the Lake. Photo courtesy of Historic Smithville
Adventure Aquarium transforms into an underwater winter wonderland that will enchant your little guppies.
- December 2-30: See the world’s tallest underwater Christmas tree, dance under falling snow, and take a selfie with Scuba Santa.
Victorian Cape May isn’t just a summer destination; this seaside town transforms into a veritable Dickens village for the holidays.
- December 2, 6, 16 & 20: Take in the sights with Christmas Candlelight House Tours of local homes, inns, hotels, and churches beautifully illuminated for the holidays.
- Weekends in December, Santa Trolley Rides feature songs and stories led by Mrs. Claus; sing along to Christmas tunes aboard the Holiday Lights Trolley Rides; or get spooked on the Ghosts of Christmas Past trolley ride, in which riders are treated to a spooky Victorian ghost story.
- Daily tours through January 1 of the Physick Estate give families a chance to see the town’s 1879 Victorian house museum all decked out for the holiday.
This South Jersey town puts a unique spin on Hanukkah celebrations.
- December 17: Watch a stream of cars, all with rooftop menorahs, travel from the Chabad Center to the Barclay Shopping Center. A festive menorah lighting will follow.
OCEAN GROVE & ASBURY PARK
Another great Victorian town, Ocean Grove is the perfect holiday destination. A quick stroll down the boardwalk takes you to Asbury Park, where you can enjoy the eclectic holiday vibe.
- Don’t miss Free Movie Fridays at the Paramount Theater with screenings of The Goonies (December 1) and Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (December 8).
- December 9-10: Ocean Grove’s Victorian Holiday Festival features tours of inns and homes, vintage doll houses, Christmas pageants, horse and buggy rides, Christmas tree lights, and more.
- December 2-3, 9-10, 17 & 23: The Asbury Park Winter Bazaar is the hub of the town’s holiday activity. Set up in the Grand Arcade, the bazaar offers an array of local, handmade goods for sale, as well as visits and photos with Santa, live music, and craft sessions for kids.
Head to the Ivy League town this December for a delightful holiday experience.
- Saturdays in December, the Princeton Tour Company provides a climate-controlled trolley ride around Princeton’s historic neighborhoods. Riders can show their receipt to receive exclusive discounts at stores and restaurants around Palmer Square.
- December 24: Santa trades in his sleigh for a plane when he comes in for a landing at the Princeton Airport on Christmas Eve. The landing takes place at 11 a.m., and children will greet Santa while snacking on hot cocoa and cookies. If you'd like to arrange to have a gift waiting for your child at the airport, you're also asked to bring an unwrapped present for a child in need.
- For some fantastic holiday theater, check out the McCarter Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol, playing now through December 31.
If you have an arcade-obsessed kiddo, there’s no better place to get into the holiday spirit that at Seaside’s Casino Pier.
- December 2: A festive party at the Casino Pier Arcade will get your whole family in the mood for Christmas. Events include an ugly sweater contest, arts & crafts, indoor snowball fight, and of course, a visit from Santa.
If you're looking for a quaint place with cobblestone streets, unique shops, and a great meal, Historic Smithville is worth your time.
- December 9 & 16: Make a reservation now to dine with Santa at Fred and Ethel’s Lantern Light Tavern.
- Historic Smithville is known for its Light Show on the Lake, held Thursday-Sundays until January 7, in which more than 120 Christmas trees made from some 50,000 lights seem to magically float on Lake Meone in the center of town.
Top image courtesy of Historic Smithville. Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of the organizers.
Originally published 2012; updated 2017