New England’s darkest season is filled with light. The coolest illuminations shine not only with electrical sparkle but with gigawatts of community energy and pride. Bundle up and take part in one or all of these magical spectacles, which we think are the 5 best holiday light displays in New England.
*** Updated for 2016 ***
Lighted Holiday Boat Parade
As for any parade, spectators bring their chairs, they line either side of the route, they buy food and beverages, they cheer and applaud. But the looks on kids’ faces are the giveaway that this is no ordinary procession. For the 16th year, following the 6:00 p.m. tree lighting at Mystic River Park in Mystic, Connecticut, nearly two dozen wildly decorated dinghies, sailboats, and powerboats will cruise down the river from Mystic Seaport, their festive lights amplified by the water’s reflection. Reserve a room at The Steamboat Inn or a table at S&P Oyster Company or Red 36 far in advance: These ultimate viewing spots are warm. November 26, 2016. mysticchamber.org/events/holiday-events
ZooLights at Stone Zoo
Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Massachusetts, will continue a 20-year tradition when it twinkles with more than 200,000 lights from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. nightly. Animated displays, brisk carousel rides, and the chance to whisper wishes to the head elf himself at Santa’s Castle add to the enchantment. But nothing outshines the zoo’s prime attraction: animals. Snowy-white Arctic foxes, Canada lynx, North American porcupines, silvery barn owls … You won’t see reindeer fly (they’re resting up for their big night), but you can have your photo snapped with one of Rudolph’s sidekicks for a small fee.
Lighting of the Nubble
Vocalists harmonize. A firetruck delivers Santa. Volunteers serve 60 gallons of hot chocolate and 6,000 home-baked cookies—all donated, all free. Divers surface, raising the underwater Christmas tree. But for everyone gathered at Sohier Park in York, Maine, the most-anticipated moment arrives at 6:00 p.m. on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The countdown leads to a resounding “Ahhh!” as Cape Neddick Light, a.k.a. “the Nubble,” is outlined in razor-sharp beams. A beacon of hope, it radiates into the new year. Can’t be there?
A second chance to see the Nubble illuminated occurs during York Days in July. Or watch via webcam for the first time this year. nubblelight.org
A River of Light
When UK-born artist Gowri Savoor searched for a community to host a lantern parade in her adopted home state of Vermont, she found an ally in Waterbury art teacher MK Monley. After coaxing 400 elementary kids to craft LED-illuminated paper lanterns in 2010, Monley says, “I swore I’d never do it again.” But after Tropical Storm Irene’s devastation in 2011, the community needed this whimsical parade, and today it’s a beloved tradition that’s grown into an even more festive celebration, with live band music and more than 500 glowing lanterns created by everyone from preschoolers to professional artists. You can make one and you can march, too. The 5:00 p.m. procession along Main Street concludes with a bonfire. ariveroflightinwaterbury.wordpress.com
La Salette Shrine Christmas Festival of Lights
“We want to be a place of welcome for people from all walks of life, all religions,” says Rev. Cyriac Matta-thilanickal, director of the Retreat Center at La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, Massachusetts. And so began a tradition that’s now 62 years old: a free display of 450,000 lights—most now energy-efficient LEDs—drawing as many as 15,000 visitors between 5:00 and 9:00 p.m. on peak evenings. With concerts, Masses, a public cafe-teria, a Chapel of Light flickering with 3,000 candles, and a crèche museum featuring 2,500 nativities from around the world, the La Salette community preserves the spirit of Christmas for generations of families. November 24, 2016–January 1, 2017. lasalette-shrine.org
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.