by Tracey Teo
After months of struggling with a pandemic, we could all use a little Christmas cheer, and Southerners don’t have to go far to find it. The 31st annual Smoky Mountain Winterfest, a collaboration between Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, brings comfort and joy to all safely this season.
Here are a few highlights:
Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival
Do you hear what I hear?
Dollywood, country music legend Dolly Parton’s theme park, is known for heartwarming holiday shows like “Christmas in the Smokies.” However, this season, a new show is also making its mark.
“Heart of the Holidays,” featuring Parton’s family, recently debuted in the DreamSong Theatre and showcases old favorites alongside new songs like “You Are My Christmas” from her new album, “A Holly Dolly Christmas.”
“Circle of Love,” from the soundtrack to the 2016 NBC holiday movie “Christmas of Many Colors: Circle or Love,” is treasured by those familiar with the storyline, which was inspired by one of Parton’s most poignant childhood Christmas memories in her hometown of Sevierville.
“My mom and dad got married when they were very young, and they didn’t have the money to buy a wedding ring,” Parton says in a video from Dollywood. “Mom had a house full of kids and never had a wedding band.”
One year, the family decided to sacrifice their own Christmas wishes and pitch in to buy their mother a long overdue ring. For her mom, the ring was a true Christmas miracle. Parton said her father made a game of hiding it for the children to find. The one who found it would get to present it to their mother, and get a big box of candy to boot.
“We tore down half the Christmas tree and half the house looking for the ring. Mama loved her ring, and that (memory) will always be special,” Parton continues.
Those who live in a state with a snowball’s chance in hell of a white Christmas make their way to Glacier Ridge, a park expansion that opened two years ago. Stroll through an ethereal 130-foot tunnel of cool blue lights until you emerge into an icy winter wonderland where it “snows” nightly, thanks to a little Christmas magic. An animated Christmas tree with lights synchronized to holiday music anchors the breathtaking wintry scene.
Black bears are common in the Smoky Mountains, but polar bears can only be found at Glacier Ridge. The furry, lifelike creatures roam beneath ice-coated trees on the banks of Drop Line Bay. Stay for the new “Merry and Bright!” fireworks display, a dramatic finale to a fun day of holiday festivities.
The park is operating at reduced capacity due to COVID-19.
Dolly Parton Stampede Dinner Attraction & Other Eats
Do you have a little buckaroo that wants a pony for Christmas? Tell him it won’t fit in Santa’s sleigh and take him to the Dolly Parton Stampede, located outside of Dollywood.
Thirty-two majestic horses strut their stuff in this world-class equestrian show, a riveting competition between the North Pole on one half of the theater and the South Pole on the other. The audience cheers for their respective teams as they enjoy a four-course Christmas feast, but in the end, everybody’s a winner.
Throughout the meal, riders in flashy, Christmas-themed costumes gallop through a wintery world and toys magically come to life. Of course, the big guy in the red suit makes an appearance, but the show doesn’t overlook the religious meaning behind Christmas.
A live nativity scene depicts three wise men riding to Bethlehem on camels and an angel descending from Heaven to announce Jesus’ birth. It truly brings to mind the phrase, “Peace on Earth, good will toward men.”
Operating at 50 percent capacity due to COVID-19. Runs through Jan. 2, 2021.
Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant is another fun spot that’s close to the festivities. It serves up Southern favorites like fried chicken, meatloaf and sugar-cured ham and operates year-round.
More Holiday Fun
Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland at the Tennessee Smokies Baseball Stadium in Sevierville is a sound and light show like no other, shaking up familiar Christmas tunes. For instance, in their rendition of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” you can forget about those light, tinkling bell sounds. This remixed version thrums with deep percussion and electric guitar, while synchronized lights dance to the music. Shadrack’s prioritizes safety, so you’ll experience this Christmas thrill through the radio in your vehicle until January 3.
For more active pursuits, head to Wilderness at the Smokies resort. During the most wonderful time of the year, the massive outdoor wave pool is transformed into an ice rink with dozens of skaters gliding to holiday music. Experienced skaters show off their moves, while newbies sign up for lessons offered by Cool Sports. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: a short figure skating performance is scheduled every Friday from 7:30-7:45 p.m.
The rink is open through January 10.
Need to deck your halls? All your Christmas decorating dreams will come true at Christmas Place, a year-round, Alpine-themed shopping village in Pigeon Forge. More than 60 themed Christmas trees, miles of novelty lights and loads of collectibles, including Department 56 villages and Fontanni nativities, draw shoppers from all over the country.
Where to Stay
Hidden Mountain Resort in Sevierville is perfect for large groups. If you’re traveling with a big bunch, rent one of these well-appointed cabins, cottages or spacious villas with sweeping mountain views. They offer many luxurious features, such as fireplaces, whirlpools and pool tables.
Want something close to the action? Then Eagles Ridge Resort in Pigeon Forge is the ideal spot. Accommodations range from one-bedroom cabins to a nine-bedroom mountaintop home. Whatever you choose, you’ll be only a short drive from the most exciting attractions in Pigeon Forge and Parton’s hometown of Sevierville.
Tracey Teo is a freelance travel journalist who has written about Southern culture and food for 15 years. She contributes to a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Dallas Morning News, The Star Tribune, Kentucky Living and AAA Southern Traveler. A Kentucky native, she currently lives in southern Indiana.