Kentucky has a rich heritage of holiday traditions as varied and unique as the regions from which they emerged. As these regions grow and evolve, so do the holiday festivities. Discover how many towns are putting an exciting, new spin on old traditions. Check out a few highlights from around the state.
A Christmas miracle
When Clay Campbell founded the Kentucky Opry near Kentucky Lake 23 years ago, he took it for granted winter would be the off-season. As predicted, after Labor Day the boaters and campers that comprised the audience for the fast-paced country music shows dwindled, and Campbell expected them to disappear altogether with the last of the fall foliage. He thought he was prepared to close the doors of the 575-seat theater until spring, but he had a problem.
His 10-piece band was good—real good. For months they had worked to hone an authentic, down-home sound, and they were just starting to hit their stride. If he laid off the band, some of them would undoubtedly be hired elsewhere.
He wondered how he could keep the Kentucky Opry running through at least part of the winter so he could pay the band. Then he had an idea. Why not stage a Christmas show? Instead of depending on tourists to fill the seats, he would reach out to the community.
So in 1988, A Country Christmas made its debut. To Campbell’s amazement, the show featuring up-and-coming talent singing Christmas classics played to a sold-out house. As far as Campbell was concerned, it was a true Christmas miracle.
“People came in droves,” Campbell says. “We did matinees and just kept adding performances. Christmas became one of the best times of the year.”
For many western Kentucky residents, it doesn’t feel like Christmas until they have had a toe-tappin’ good time at the Kentucky Opry, reveling in the sound of favorite holiday tunes backed by a fiddle and a steel guitar.
Festival of Trains
A model train under the Christmas tree is as crucial as a star on top for many families. Celebrate this Christmas tradition at the ninth annual Festival of Trains at the Historic RailPark & Train Museum and L&N Depot in Bowling Green.
The event features numerous trains in an exhibit built by members of the sHOw Modular Model Railroad Club of Southern Kentucky, an organization that builds modular train displays using the HO scale.
Each train travels through a miniature world of the builder’s imagination. One chugs past a meandering country lane dotted with farmhouses, and another crosses a bridge over a tranquil lake.
Rick Williams, the festival organizer, has had a passion for model trains since his grandfather gave him his first one for Christmas. He says the festival’s lifelike dioramas spark nostalgia in those who traveled by passenger train back in the day.
“To watch their eyes light up when they are having those memories, it’s sort of special,” Williams says. “Some may have left from that depot (the L&N Depot) to go off to war or to leave for their honeymoon.”
The trains may put kids in mind of The Polar Express, the popular children’s Christmas book and movie. That’s the magic of the Festival of Trains—it speaks to the youngest and the oldest generations of train enthusiasts, creating memories for the former and bringing back memories for the latter.
A tour for holiday “spirit”
An annual candlelight tour of Maker’s Mark distillery may seem like a peculiar way to kick off the holidays to some, but for those who live in the Bardstown area, the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” the tour is as essential to the season as stockings and reindeer.
This year guests will tour a Victorian-themed Christmas wonderland complete with carolers and decorations from Christmases past. The Maker’s Mark grounds, with their quaint red-shuttered buildings, are beautiful any time of the year, but when festooned with wreaths and greenery, the distillery is transformed into a Dickens-like Christmas fantasy.
It’s a family event, so plenty of nonalcoholic drinks like hot cider will be served, but those over 21 may enjoy a sample holiday cocktail. Plenty of bourbon balls, that sweet Kentucky treat with a kick, will also be on hand.
Maker’s Mark’s new master distiller, Greg Davis, is looking forward to his first Christmas event there. He will be signing souvenir Christmas bottles (sold only at the distillery), and welcomes the opportunity to greet Maker’s Mark “ambassadors” who appreciate good bourbon as much as he does.
“Hopefully, we will be fortunate enough to have a nice little dusting of snow for some additional Christmas cheer,” Davis says. “But if not, I’m sure one of our Maker’s Mark cocktail samples will put visitors in the Christmas spirit.”
Historic RailPark & Train Museum and L&N Depot
401 Kentucky St., Bowling Green
Festival of Trains: Saturday,
Dec. 4, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday,
Dec. 5, 1-4 p.m. Admission: free.
88 Chilton Lane, Benton
A Country Christmas show times: Saturday, Nov. 27, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 4, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 10, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 11, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.;
Friday, Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday,
Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m. Admission: $17 adults, $16 seniors, $7.50 children.
3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto
Candlelight Tours: Saturday, Dec. 4, and Saturday, Dec. 11, about 5-7 p.m. (After dark; actual start time depends on when darkness falls.) Free.
MORE HOLIDAY HAPPENINGS
Adsmore House and Gardens
304 N. Jefferson St., Princeton
Victorian Christmas 1901 Tour: Nov. 9-
Dec. 31 (closed Dec. 24-27). Admission: $7 adults, $6 seniors (65 and older), $2 children 6-12, under 6 free.
Ashland—The Henry Clay Estate
120 Sycamore Road, Lexington
A White Christmas at Ashland Candlelight Open House: Dec. 5 and
Dec. 26, 5:30-8 p.m. Admission: $15.
My Old Kentucky Home
501 E. Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown
(502) 348-3502 or (800) 323-7803
Candlelight Tour: Nov. 26-27, Dec. 3-4,
Dec. 10-11 (5:30 p.m. each day). Admission: $5.50 adults, $5 seniors, $3.50 children 6-12, under 6 free.