If you long for an old-fashioned Christmas, with hot chocolate and mittens, parades and carolers, community performances and holiday arts and crafts wrapped in the warmth of a small-town atmosphere, make a trip this season to "Everybody's Hometown": Prescott, Ariz.
A 4½-hour drive from Las Vegas, the community of nearly 40,000, nestled in the Bradshaw Mountains, is considered "Arizona's Christmas City." Its residents really know how to put on a show for the holidays, with activities and celebrations starting in late November.
The main events include the 30th annual Christmas Parade followed by the 58th annual Courthouse Lighting Ceremony on Saturday and the Acker Musical Showcase on Dec. 7.
The parade involves the whole town in planning, sponsoring, decorating or riding on floats. The approximately 80 to 100 yearly entrants include floats by local businesses, church groups, schools and, of course, bands, says Jill Currey, who works with the Prescott Chamber of Commerce on special events.
The lighting ceremony includes a reading of the Christmas story and Christmas carols performed by students from local schools. "At the end of the program, the lights are turned on," Currey says. "It's a beautiful spectacle."
Last year, with the flip of a switch, dozens of elms around the historic courthouse twinkled red, white, green and blue in honor of Arizona's centennial.
Sharlot Hall Museum also will open its doors to celebrate a "Frontier Christmas" on Saturday. The evening event will include living history interpreters reviving the spirit of Christmas past, historic buildings decked out in period decorations and live seasonal music.
Sharlot Hall is named after its founder Sharlot Mabridth Hall, who lived from 1870 to 1943 and became well-known as a poet, activist, politician and Arizona's first territorial historian. The museum includes seven historic buildings, exhibits and gardens and features living history events, educational programming and exhibits throughout the year, not just at Christmastime.
The Acker Musical Showcase on Dec. 7 features three hours of music as more than 100 downtown businesses host musical groups of every genre. This free evening event is entirely run, supported and performed by volunteers, Currey notes.
Prescott takes its music seriously. Throughout the year, small groups of musicians can be found at most of the bars and restaurants, playing music from blues to jazz to soft rock - really all types of music, says Janice Paul, a pianist who plays regularly in Prescott's downtown. "Prescott has become a musical town. People enjoy listening to small groups of musicians in intimate atmospheres," she says.
One of the highlights of any trip to Prescott is shopping and dining in its downtown, which sprang up around the courthouse square. Then-Sen. Barry Goldwater launched his 1964 presidential campaign from the steps of the courthouse, one of more than 800 structures in town on the National Register of Historic Places. One-of-a-kind restaurants, small specialty shops and bars fill the square, including the historic "Whiskey Row" along Montezuma Street. Prescott Brewing Co., also on the square, was named the best microbrewery in Arizona.
Shops offer unique Christmas gifts and decorations. LeFebvre's is one example. "Christmas is the best season of the year," owner Connie LeFebvre says. "Prescott offers a lot of shops where you'll find unusual gifts you won't find elsewhere."
Even if you can't visit Prescott during the first or second weekends in December, the town will not disappoint.
The Yavapai College Performing Arts Center in Prescott has performances of "The Nutcracker," the film "Ira Finkelstein's Christmas," "The Many Moods of Christmas" pops concert and a performance by singer Judy Collins planned during December.
"Blue Christmas: A Salute to the King" is an annual event, this year set for Dec. 16 at the Elks Opera House, highlighting the music and energy of Elvis Presley. The Elks Opera House also offers "Miracle on 34th Street," performed by the Mountain Community Theater group, during the first two weeks of December.
Prescott is home to several museums besides Sharlot Hall, as well as art galleries featuring many examples of the thriving arts community in the area. The Smoki Museum concentrates on American Indian art and cultures. The Phippen Museum features art of the American West. Fort Whipple Museum, which served as a tactical base of the U.S. Cavalry from 1864 to 1882, offers exhibits on frontier medicine, Army weaponry, the history of the Buffalo Soldiers and maps, photographs and memoirs of soldiers stationed at the fort.
Mild summers and winters are the norm in Prescott, which is at an elevation of 5,400 feet in the mountains of central Arizona. Founded in 1864, Prescott was designated the first capital of Arizona Territory, before giving way to Phoenix in 1889.
Many hotels and bed-and-breakfast spots are within walking distance of the historic downtown, including the Hassayampa Inn, a beautiful fully renovated inn dating to 1927. The Hotel Vendome, built in 1917 and situated near downtown, is a quaint, fully restored hotel with a Western feel. The Prescott Resort and Conference Center, perched on a hilltop, is a full-service resort with salon and spa, casino, restaurant and lounge. Many other large motels can be found in or near Prescott.
Dining out is a treat in Prescott. The Peacock Room inside the Hassayampa Inn and the Rose Restaurant offer romantic dinners. Pub fare is available to complement the beer at the Prescott Brewing Co. Breakfast is a treat at St. Michael's Cafe, one of the many restaurants dotting the square.
Prescott thrives because its residents are invested in their community. The city has a large proportion of retirees who come because of the mild climate and stay because of the welcoming small-town feel.
"I've been here 15 years," Currey says. "I love it."