We snuggle in cozy blankets against the December evening chill as our horse-drawn carriage rolls through Bardstown, Kentucky. A hint of wood smoke drifts in on the wind, and the horse's breath rises hot and steaming as we clip-clop past clusters of evergreen-draped historic buildings and blocks of tidy homes spilling friendly light into the quiet streets.
Our driver, William Jones—he says to call him Jonesie—describes some favorites on the route in his casual mid-Kentucky drawl. "We go by the St. Joseph Cathedral and the one-room schoolhouse that dates to the 1800s, also the old pioneer cemetery and the old Talbott Tavern. That's the oldest stagecoach stop west of the Allegheny Mountains," he says with a touch of pride.
But at Christmas, holiday finery is a top priority. "A lot of people ask me, 'When does the town light up? We want to go when the town's lighted up,'" he says, laughing.
There's no question that Christmas shines magically in Bardstown, a historic little town named the Most Beautiful Small Town in America by Best of the Road Competition and nestled in the welcoming Kentucky hills a short jog south of Louisville. There are roaming carolers, candlelit 19th century mansion tours, holiday-themed productions by the hometown drama troupe, private homes and businesses aglow with Yule lights and two Christmas trains-each with its own jolly Santa and Mrs. Claus to spoil the children.
In late November, the town goes ablaze for the holidays in a gleeful celebration called Light Up Bardstown. There's a rousing Christmas parade, candy, face painting and 9-foot-tall nutcrackers for the children, numerous decorations and a monumental public Christmas tree surrounded by topiary reindeer that all—if you can spare a moment to look up—seems to be reflected in the star-filled sky above.
Locals savor the spectacle and love to share it with visitors. "Driving down the main street of Bardstown and experiencing the lights and colorful store windows brings a smile to my face and warmth to my heart," says Bardstown art-glass creator Dala Utley. Dala's beautiful stained-glass and dichroic glass jewelry can be found at The Art Gallery on the square, a shared space abuzz with local artisans. A casual stroll through the picturesque downtown passes any number of unique shops, each decorated for Christmas in its own distinctive style.
Bardstown also shines in the footlights, when the Bardstown Community Theatre takes the stage. The 2014 Christmas presentations, Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus and Amahl and the Night Visitors share heaping helpings of family fun.
Yes, Virginia... Director Kara Hinton, who along with her family has been in past productions including The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and The Homecoming, says the fun reaches far beyond the boards. "It's the special time you can create with family of all ages, whether it be as patrons watching the show, crew helping, or actors on stage," she says.
A quieter light glows in candlelight tours of Federal Hill, the stately mansion anchoring My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Composer Stephen Foster spent some time with relatives here and was inspired to write "My Old Kentucky Home," an anthem to the gracious Old South that still brings lumps to Commonwealth throats at landmark Bluegrass State occasions such as the Kentucky Derby.
That kind of pedigree demands serious attention to holiday decoration. "It will take us a few weeks to do the inside and outside of the mansion," admits State Park Director Brenda Willoughby Brown. "We take our time and really make an effort to create a festive atmosphere." The list of decorations reads like a hungry chipmunk's delight: greenery, fruit, pine cones, berries, vegetables and dried flowers, along with a table-straining bounty of garlands, bows, wreaths and centerpieces.
"We strive for elegant simplicity with historical overtones," she says. "We want our candlelight tours to be memorable!"
At Wickland, another Bardstown Victorian mansion, guests settle into the parlor for the festive Mrs. Julia Beckham's Christmas Teas, "hosted" by the real historical figure whose life at the mansion spanned the Civil War and reached into the early 20th century. Visitors enjoy Benedictine sandwiches and other treats with Mrs. Beckham—portrayed by Dixie Hibbs, a historian and former Bardstown mayor who is the curator of the mansion. The conversation recalls Mrs. Beckham's life as the daughter, sister and mother of three generations of governors, all of whom lived at Wickland.
"Ms. Julia's tea is an opportunity to slow down and enjoy a quiet time during a busy season," Dixie says. "It's a time to experience the old-fashioned manner of visiting your neighbors, with lovely linens, china and silver, homemade sandwiches and sweets." Tours of the 1826 mansion linger over its shining hardwood floors, imposing spiral stairway and, at Christmas, a treasure-trove of lush decorations. "There is nowhere more beautiful than Wickland at Christmas," she insists.
The forested highlands between Bardstown and Louisville offer plenty of wintry fun at Bernheim Research Forest. Learn to tap nature's holiday decorating materials in the Smart Gardens and Landscapes program, laugh with the kids on Hot Chocolate Hikes and bundle up for pitch-dark outings through the woods at night, including special early December excursions to watch a Christmas light show put on by the solar system: the Geminid meteor shower. And who knew that Bernheim has one of the largest accumulations of American holly plants in the country? Perfect for Christmas!
South of Bardstown, winding roads twist through hardwood-covered hills and past patchwork fields, leading in their own sweet time to Maker's Mark Distillery, a highlight of the popular Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Visitors gather in a family home done in mid-century style, then stroll through the wooded grounds to the production area for special candlelight tours.
The distillery is draped by hundreds of wreaths, thousands of Christmas lights and enough garlands to weigh down a Kentucky thoroughbred. It all makes the huge mash vats, glossy copper distilling tanks, and date-stamped wooden barrels as easy on the eye as smooth-sipping, aged bourbon is on the taste buds. Guests who have aged sufficiently themselves are permitted to visit the tasting room afterward.
To amplify your Christmas spirit and deepen even further your knowledge and appreciation of the Commonwealth's native whiskey, you might try Bardstown's Kentucky Bourbon House. Holiday-themed dinners, classes, tastings, and Bluegrass State culinary tours are keyed to the expertise of Col. Michael Masters, a man proud of his honorary leadership title and enjoying a comfortable acquaintance with the Kentucky good life and a happy enthusiasm for introducing it to his guests as well.
"Our guests really come to interact with Col. Masters," confides his wife, Margaret Sue. "His knowledge of bourbon and his ability to walk someone through a bourbon flight, along with our food, is the biggest draw for us."
Strolling around the Bardstown central circle peering into the downtown shops brings on a Christmas chill; it's a great excuse to stop at the old Talbott Tavern, its time-smudged, once-white stone blocks and deep red shutters refreshed with inviting Christmas evergreens and holly. Hosting travelers since 1779, the Talbott just seems to know in its ancient bones how to comfort the Yuletide vagabond.
"We put wreaths on the door, and our Christmas tree is in the window so everybody can see it," says Pam Mattingly, the latest in a long, long line of friendly tavern keepers. "When the Christmas parade goes by, we give out cookies and hot chocolate."
It's the kind of holiday habit shared by everyone you're likely to meet in this hospitable little town in the quiet Kentucky hills.
"We just want people to feel like they're at home," Pam says.
Plan your getaway to Bardstown this winter season to discover exceptional experiences and seasonal festivities.