As the last traces of summer fade away, and leaves begin to tumble from the trees, thoughts move from the allure of the open road to the more domestic pleasures of family festivities like Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. Though the great outdoors may be less inviting in November and December than they were in the warm summer months, the end of the year still offers opportunities for road-tripping fun and adventure. Annual big-city celebrations — including the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade down Broadway in New York City or the Hollywood Christmas Parade in Los Angeles — can inspire you to hit the road in search of kitschy activities and shopping opportunities, while smaller, local events help ease you into the spirit of the changing seasons.
Combining seasonal themes with scenic beauty, the Pennsylvania Dutch Country west of Philadelphia along the historic Lincoln Highway offers an especially rich menu for the traveler. Homes, barns and stores are decked out with millions of lights and seasonal displays, most famously at Koziar’s Christmas Village in the town of Bernville, while bountiful meals are available at the many Amish-themed family-style restaurants.
An hour north of the Dutch Country, the truly historic city of Bethlehem (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that is!) calls itself “Christmas City USA” and celebrates the season with a giant star shining brightly above a low-key mix of traditional German arts-and-crafts markets and elaborate “puts,” the local name for Nativity scenes. Bethlehem was founded as a religious community back in the 1740s, and its many historic structures are best seen while riding in the back of a horse-drawn carriage clip-clopping down the cobblestone streets, all lit by white lights and with a Christmas tree on every corner.
Though it did not become a national holiday until after the Civil War, the “First Thanksgiving” celebrated colonial Pilgrims’s first harvest in the New World. You can experience what life was like four centuries ago by taking a trip along the coast between Boston and Cape Cod to Plimoth Plantation. Back in 1621, settlers dined on crops like corn and pumpkins and meat from wildfowl and deer, which the Pilgrims were given by the local Wampanoag Indians. This historic exchange is re-enacted each November, just down the road from the iconic Plymouth Rock. If you come a month earlier you might catch a glimpse of the cranberry harvest in the surrounding wetlands.
Up in the Great North Woods of Minnesota, the onset of winter is announced by a unique event: the Fish House Parade in the town of Aitkin. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River along the Great River Road, Aitkin is an archetypal American town with a difference: Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving (Nov. 23rd in 2018), local anglers parade their decorated ice-fishing shelters down Main Street.
Film fans might want to make the trip for a different reason: The offbeat Coen Bros. comedy “Fargo” was filmed just down the road in the town of Brainerd.