For those of us who live in Music City, Amy Grant perhaps said it best: “A tender Tennessee Christmas, the only Christmas for me.” If you’re heading this way for the holidays, or even just passing through, we’d love to see you. Here are some of our state’s favorite seasonal spots, especially for country music fans.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is offering several programs celebrating the holidays, including a visit with Santa on Saturday (Dec. 11) and a free screening of the 1982 special, Johnny Cash: A Merry Memphis Christmas, on Dec. 19. The Museum Store helps visitors cover that last-minute Christmas shopping with the “12 under $25” promotion — a variety of holiday greeting cards, posters, CDs, cookie cutters and ornaments perfect for stocking stuffers. If you’re hungry, just stop at the Two Twenty-Two grill for lunch or a warm cup of coffee. You’ll have a perfect view of a 25-foot Christmas tree adorning the lobby. Covered with 3,000 lights, it might just be a perfect backdrop for next year’s family Christmas card. — Andrea Graff
Dollywood, Pigeon Forge
With 4 million lights illuminating the park and cheerful faces at every turn, a day at Dollywood immediately put me in the Christmas spirit when I visited a few weeks ago. The lines for the roller coasters are shorter, the musical productions are always festive and the food — ah, ’tis the season for homemade cinnamon bread and steaming apple cider. Whenever I go to Dollywood, I like to linger in the craftsman stores, where folks make candles, blown glass ornaments, rocking chairs and other Appalachian wares, which would make unique gifts for country fans. And there are countless glittering photo ops for the annual family portrait. But if you’re facing a downer “Hard Candy Christmas,” take time to cheer yourself up with a handmade candy cane at the sweet shoppe.
If you make the trip to Pigeon Forge, my first suggestion would be to rent a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains. Nearly every rental has a hot tub — a welcome luxury on a chilly night — and the misty morning views are incredible. Dollywood Vacations offer classy and comfortable new cabins overlooking the park — so close you can hear the rumble of the roller coasters (not to mention the screams). For a big family gathering, this may be your best bet. Yet the area’s lodging options are quite diverse and plentiful with little black bears adorning more than a few rustic mantles. If you prefer a hotel, try the Inn at Christmas Place, decorated for the holidays year-round. And don’t miss the fantastic Titanic museum, with actual artifacts from the ill-fated voyage. A few wreaths and garlands set the holiday mood although the ship sank in April 1912. Look for the big roadside boat. Sure, the edifice is a bit outrageous, but the insightful galleries make you feel like you’re actually there. Inside the exhibit, you can dip your hands in frigid 28-degree water, and it may be the last time you complain about being cold. — Craig Shelburne
Fontanel Mansion, Whites Creek
On a dark, chilly November evening, my husband and I ventured about 15 miles outside Nashville to a must-see destination this time of year — Christmas at Fontanel Mansion. Formerly the home of country music star Barbara Mandrell, the manor is now open for daily tours. As the manor’s lights slowly came into view, I was charmed by the holiday decorations of tinsel, trees, pinecones and sweet-sounding carols inside the 27,000-square foot log cabin. As I made my way through the home, I followed the delightful music coming from inside the large atrium with an indoor swimming pool. What a pleasant treat to see Alabama’s very own Randy Owen performing “Christmas in Dixie” and “Mountain Music” at one of his special holiday appearances. With the room filled with smiling faces and full bellies, the atmosphere felt like a large, cozy family gathering. Later I did my best to navigate through the three-story home, stopping for a peek (or two) at the over 20 stunningly decorated rooms, 16 exquisite bathrooms, a game room with full bar and so much more. For those in search of a merry holiday adventure, Fontanel Mansion is a joyful escape to kick off a holly jolly season. — Whitney Self
Many of Elvis Presley’s own Christmas decorations are on display at his home, Graceland. Through Presley’s birthday on Jan. 8, the uniquely-appointed mansion will be enhanced by elegant Christmas trees, blooming poinsettias and festive lights. As the shuttle buses navigate the driveway, be sure to glance at the yard to see the life-size nativity scene and a golden holiday message from Presley himself. And when the sun goes down, blue lights illuminate the grounds, presumably in the spirit of his enduring holiday hit, “Blue Christmas.” The house tour itself remains a must-see for any Elvis fan, with stops in the straight-out-of-the-1970s kitchen, the colorful basement and the immortal Jungle Room, all with Christmas flourishes. His astonishing accomplishments are described in detail in the trophy room and racquetball court, while the meditation garden offers a solemn conclusion. If you need to finish your Christmas list, there are at least a dozen gift shops on the premises. Doesn’t everyone need an Elvis Christmas album?
By the way, Elvis couldn’t resist practical jokes. He once overheard his entourage anticipating their generous bonus checks at Christmas, so when the season rolled around, he handed them each a stuffed envelope — with $5 McDonald’s gift certificates inside. Naturally, being a generous guy, the real bonuses came later. — Craig Shelburne
Opryland Hotel’s “A Country Christmas,” Nashville
Aside from the beauty of 2 million Christmas lights and a life-sized nativity scene on its front lawn, the newly restored Gaylord Opryland Hotel boasts holiday events that typically draw nearly a million visitors. As part of “A Country Christmas,” the hotel (now completely updated after the Nashville flood in May) comes alive with special shows and décor while transforming its outdoor areas into winter wonderlands. A perennial favorite is the Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring the world-famous Rockettes. They’ll be high-kicking the night away in the brand new Grand Ole Opry house until Christmas Eve. Inside the hotel, country fans can treat their families to some hearty Southern cooking and take in a little dinner theater with Louise Mandrell’s “The Gift” dinner and show.
For those looking to brave the elements, don’t miss the outdoor activities. New this year is the SNOW! exhibit, a large area where kids and the young-at-heart can build snowmen and angels and test their snowball throwing accuracy in 3 feet of artificial snow. For Opryland’s incredible ICE! exhibit, skilled craftsmen are brought in from across the world to sculpt larger-than-life scenes from children’s Christmas stories completely from ice. This year’s theme is “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Visitors walk through interactive carvings of Kris Kringle growing up and later freeing Sombertown from its toy-less drudgery to become that loveable Santa Claus. It’s fun for the whole family with bright colors and smiling faces all around, which makes for wonderful photo opportunities. Just remember to bundle up since the enclosure is kept at a chilly 9 degrees. Everyone gets a big, warm parka when they enter, but you’ll still want warm gloves, a hat and some comfy boots. And ladies, don’t wear anything with a heel, or you won’t be allowed down the giant ice slide at the end! — Chris PartonSee photos from top Tennessee Christmas destinations.