Madison’s Fun Holiday Happenings

By Shelby Deering | Photo: Greg Anderson (left), The Edgewater (right)

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 will take place on Tuesday, Dec. 6, at noon, and you can also view the tree throughout the holiday season.

Next, make an afternoon of it by walking downtown to view the seasonal window decorating competition (Nov. 19-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 Kids in the Kitchen: Stupendous Squash! (Nov. 15, 4:30-5:30 p.m.) and Cooking with Chef Paul: Holiday Sides and Wine Pairings (Dec. 15, 6-8 p.m.). Between the chocolate pear tarts, 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).

Happy Hanukkah

There are many opportunities throughout Madison to celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, including Hanukkah at Hilldale Mall (Dec. 18), where, in the past, participants have enjoyed a “gelt drop” and lit a 10-foot menorah at sundown. Also, at the State Capitol building, you can stop by to view the elaborate displays that honor Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Wintry Wonderfulness

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. 19 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. 25). Downtown Middleton also has their own tree-lighting extravaganza, taking place at the new Stone Horse Green space,

Holiday Home

If you’ve ever wanted the chance to see the Governor’s Executive Residence in person, it’s at its best when it’s all decked out for the holidays. Be sure to take a festive tour this year (Dec. 6, 8, 15, 17, noon-2 p.m.; and Dec. 10, 10 a.m.- noon). With a splendid tree displayed outside to greet guests, inside, you’ll find Wisconsin-themed trees and elegant decorations aplenty. Visitors can also bring food that will be donated to local food pantries and books that will be given to Reach Out and Read Wisconsin.

Festive Festivals

‘Tis the season for festivals of all kinds throughout the city, like the Madison Fair Trade Holiday Festival at the Monona Terrace (Dec. 3, 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. 2, 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. 20) 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. 12 – Jan. 1, 2023).

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 (Nov. 18–Jan. 22, 2023). For Christmas lights with an animal theme, head to Henry Vilas Zoo for their annual Zoo Lights (Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Nov. 25-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. Waunakee also has their own spectacular light display with their Waunakee Rotary Lights (Nov. 20- Dec. 31), held in Village Park and featuring candy canes and archways that your kids will adore.

Spirited Shopping

The official start to the Madison holiday shopping season is right after Black Friday, called Small Business Saturday (Nov. 26). On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, various “Shop Small” events are happening, such as on Monroe Street and downtown. On Nov. 25-27 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. 10), which has traditionally included carolers, refreshments and special activities. You can always head to the Dane County Holiday Market (Nov. 19, Dec. 3, Dec. 10, Dec. 17, 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. 26, Dec. 3, Dec. 10) and Ladies’ Night Out (Dec. 1), brimming with shopping, giveaways and holiday entertainment.

Locally-Made for the Holidays

For a truly Madisonian gift to give to a loved one or friend, you can’t go wrong with a treasure crafted by a local maker or area company. There’s the Sun Prairie-based Lindsay Letters Co. with gorgeous abstract paintings and farmhouse artwork created by Lindsay Sherbondy. While her pieces have a national following, they are equally as beloved here in town. It’s a tradition to gift nuts for the holidays, and Nutkrack is in no short supply, specializing in candied pecans that range from classic to the spicy “chili-spiked.”

For pottery with neutral hues and modern flair, look to Madeleine Parker Pottery (PotsByMadeline on Etsy) featuring handcrafted mugs, jars and olive oil bottles. And if someone on your list can’t get enough jewelry, purchase a piece from Melissa Jenkins Designs, with earrings and necklaces spotlighting on- trend, arched shapes and stones like chunky turquoise, along with colorful wall weavings, making the perfect Christmas gift for your pal with the new house.

Taste of the Season

BRAVA’s sales manager Dena Frisch loves all things holidays. That’s why she wanted to share one of her favorite cookie recipes, passed down from a family member.

“Growing up my grandmother always hosted a Christmas party. One of the things I remember were her beautiful homemade cookie platters. Some of her recipes have been passed down to my aunts, and now to my sisters and I. These beautiful shortbread cookies are easy to make with simple ingredients and they will bring you joy this holiday season!” says Frisch.

Cherry Blossoms

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Maraschino cherry juice
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3-4 drops red food coloring
  • 2 1⁄2 cups flour
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
  • 1⁄2 cup chopped Maraschino cherries

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter, sugar, Maraschino cherry juice, almond extract, food coloring and salt.
  • Gradually add in flour and chopped cherries. Roll dough into one-inch balls and place on a nonstick baking sheet.
  • Bake in the oven for 8-10 minutes. Immediately after cookies come out of the oven place a Hershey’s kiss, chocolate stars or Dove dark chocolate square in the middle. Transfer cookies to a cooling rack. Makes 24 cookies. Enjoy!

Kid-Friendly Events

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 Holiday Express (Dec. 3 – 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 2022 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. 16-18 and Dec. 22-24). Dance Wisconsin’s performance features dancers, the Dance Wisconsin Orchestra and vocals by the Monona Grove High School Singers (Dec. 17 & 18). The Verona Youth Ballet also performs their own rendition (Dec. 17, 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.). Or, catch Midwest Performing Arts’ version (Dec. 3, 2 and 6 p.m.) at Waunakee High School’s Performing Arts Center. 

In Middleton, there’s the Santa Parade and Candy Cane Hunt (Dec. 17) with a First Responder Parade featuring Santa and his elves at 3 p.m., followed by a candy cane hunt in Lakeview Park, along with games, crafts and hot chocolate. The Candy Cane Hunt takes place in the dark, so flashlights are strongly suggested.

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