By Shelby Deering | Photo courtesy The Edgewater
Throughout the seasons, Madison is full of fun things to do, but it might just shine the brightest during Christmastime. From the many lights strung throughout town to shows and Santa sightings, you can easily find activities for you and your whole family to do.
Spanning downtown to the suburbs, here are our favorite ways to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year here in Madison.
A Tree-Tastic Time
The granddaddy of all the Christmas trees in Madison is undoubtedly the Capitol Holiday Tree, set up for all to behold in the stunning rotunda. A tradition since 1916, today, the tree typically towers over 30 feet and is sourced within the state, displaying handmade ornaments crafted by schoolchildren throughout Wisconsin. The official lighting date is still TBA, but you can view the tree throughout the holiday season.
Next, make an afternoon of it by walking downtown to view the seasonal window decorating competition (Nov. 18-Dec. 18). Stop by the Downtown Visitor Center during the month of December for a seasonal gift tote, and on Saturdays, enjoy carolers’ magical voices as you walk around and shop. Grab lunch at a cozy spot like The Old Fashioned or The Coopers Tavern and don’t forget to savor a triple chocolate brownie and candy cane mocha at Michelangelo’s Coffee House or a hot chocolate from Kilwins or Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream.
Cozy Cooking Classes
If cooking up a storm is your favorite thing to do during the holidays, sign up for a cooking class with Willy Street Co-op. Held at the Willy West Community Room, you can choose from Christmas-ready classes like Read a Book and Learn to Cook: Sweet Potato Macaroni and Cheese (Nov. 27, 10-11 a.m.) and Gourdeous Uses for Winter Squash (Dec. 8, 6-8 p.m.). Between the cheesy dish, glazed sweet potatoes and butternut squash creations, your family will certainly eat well this Christmas. Chef Joel Olson of Hemmachef also offers holiday-themed cooking classes about baking and treats for teens and parent/child duos that are fun and educational (hemmachef.com).
Year-round, Madison never comes up short in the outdoor activities department, and winter is no exception. Add some wintry adventures to your Christmastime itinerary with your family, such as ice skating at The Edgewater (complete with twinkling Christmas lights and a warming house with delicious eats), sledding on Elver Park’s impressive hill and hiking the UW Arboretum, packed with 17 miles of trails flanked by sparkling, snow-covered trees. Or, try snowshoeing in one of the many parks around Madison and Dane County — Vilas and Elver parks both offer snowshoe rentals. To enjoy Madison’s winter wonderland while sitting and sipping a warm drink, there are numerous restaurants in the area that have outdoor domes, such as Café Hollander, where you can warm up with a chai latte, hot cider or Rishi tea.
Gleaming Tree Lightings
There are few things as wondrous during the holidays as a tree lighting ( just ask the gang from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”), and luckily, there are several trees to behold around town. Downtown Madison’s Shine On Madison event on Nov. 24 includes the Madison Night Market, a tree lighting ceremony at 6:08 p.m. (get it?) and appearances by Santa and Mrs. Claus. The Edgewater will flip the switch on three Christmas trees decorated in all their finery, with help from Santa and Mrs. Claus (Nov. 24). Downtown Middleton also has their own tree-lighting extravaganza: Light the Green is taking place at the new Stone Horse Green space (Nov. 25).
‘Tis the season for festivals of all kinds throughout the city, like the Madison Fair Trade Holiday Festival at the Monona Terrace (Dec. 2, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.). A shopping event and festival in one (and next door to the Dane County Farmers’ Market), you’ll peruse beautiful wares that are all ethically and humanely produced, which means you can cross off plenty of names on your Christmas shopping list. Waunakee Light the Night is another holiday event that’s not to be missed (Dec. 1, 6:30- 8 p.m.), known for its Main Street parade helmed by Santa himself, downtown shopping and the Rotary Lights that can be viewed nearby. Then there’s the Hilldale North Pole Party (Nov. 19) that’s held throughout the shopping center, with a tree lighting in the plaza at 6 p.m., live reindeer, a hot-cocoa bar, curling lane and lots of store specials.
Dazzling Light Displays
Olin Park, the greenspace that flanks the Monona Lake Path, takes on a very different look during the annual Holiday Fantasy in Lights display (Nov. 1 – Dec. 31). Switched on from dusk until dawn, you can gather up your kids, don your comfiest pajamas and drive your car on the winding paths as you view trains, reindeer and a miniature Capitol in all their glowing glory. Another light display to catch from your car is the well-known, rainbow-hued University Avenue Holiday Lights (starting Nov. 17). For Christmas lights with an animal theme, head to Henry Vilas Zoo for their annual Zoo Lights (Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Nov. 24-Dec. 30). Purchase your tickets in advance to get the chance to see lions, tigers and bears (and several more creatures) all lit up for the holidays.
The official start to the Madison holiday shopping season is right after Black Friday, called Small Business Saturday (Nov. 25). On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, various “Shop Small” events are happening, such as on Monroe Street and downtown. On Nov. 24-26 is Downtown Madison’s Holiday Open House with shopping specials, carolers, family activities and more. The weekend also includes free holiday trolley rides up and down State Street and around the Capitol Square.
Monroe Street also has another holiday shopping event to add to your calendar: Glow on Monroe (Dec. 1-2), which has traditionally included carolers, refreshments and special activities. You can always head to the Dane County Holiday Market (Nov. 18, Dec. 2, Dec. 9, Dec. 16, 7:30 a.m.-noon) this time of year and shop the booths indoors at Monona Terrace. Find treats and gifts for loved ones, party hosts or ingredients for holiday meals. Sun Prairie will have several holiday shopping events, including Santa Saturdays with shopping and free photos with Santa (Nov. 25, Dec. 2, Dec. 9, Dec. 16) and Ladies’ Night Out (Dec. 7), brimming with shopping, giveaways and holiday entertainment.
Christmas is a time when wonderful memories can be made with kids, and Madison has several events where that can happen. At Olbrich Botanical Gardens, it’s all aboard for the Holiday Express Model Train and Flower Show (Dec. 2 – 31, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.), where your kiddos will love seeing model trains steaming their way through poinsettias and evergreens. Also at Olbrich, the whole family can enjoy the 2023 Holiday Concert Series at Evjue Commons (Sundays in December, 2–3 p.m.).
To take in a holiday show, get dressed up in your holiday best for Madison Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” (Dec. 15-24). Dance Wisconsin’s performance features dancers, the Dance Wisconsin Orchestra and vocals by the Monona Grove High School Singers (Dec. 16 & 17). The Verona Youth Ballet also performs their own rendition (Dec. 16, 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.). Or, catch Midwest Performing Arts’ version (Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m, and Dec. 3 at 3 p.m.) at Waunakee High School’s Performing Arts Center. Another holiday favorite, the Children’s Theater of Madison’s “A Christmas Carol,” will delight audiences once again on Dec. 9 & 10, 15-17 and 22 & 23.