15 Fantastic Christmas Events You Don’t Want to Miss in Columbia, SC

Check out these awesome Christmas events for special performances, local shopping, and beautiful Christmas lights in Columbia.

Written by

Jason Barnette


November 11, 2019

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

When Christmas comes to Columbia it arrives with one amazing event after another. Events centered around fantastic local shopping, beautiful light displays, and exciting family activities happen almost every weekend. Here are 10 fantastic Christmas events you don’t want to miss during Christmas in Columbia.

Christmas in Columbia

This blog post is part the Christmas in Columbia series, a travel guide I wrote after spending a week in December in Columbia, SC. The travel guide will help you discover Christmas in Columbia during a weekend visit for the events, light displays, local shopping, dining, and lodging.

Click to enlarge.

1. Vista Lights

Nov 21

The one-night Vista Lights event is an excellent opportunity to explore the shops and restaurants of The Vista, one of the distinctive neighborhoods of Columbia. Live entertainment fills the cool night air as visitors mingle throughout the nearly sixty locally owned shops. Stroll along Gervais or Lady Streets between Assembly and Huger to find these great places.

Carol Saunders Gallery is a nice local art shop to browse. City Art is a great place to find art supplies to support the artist in the family during Christmas.

One of the more interesting places to find great gift ideas is The Cotton Mill Exchange, the 4,000 square foot gift shop at the South Carolina State Museum. The gift shop has a bevy of clothing, books, and dinnerware with a South Carolina theme, along with educational books and toys for children.

Admission to the event is free.

READ MORE: Five Places to Find Beautiful Christmas Lights in Columbia, SC

Trees, beautiful Christmas trees everywhere at the South Carolina State Museum.

2. Festival of Trees

Nov 22-24

Each year the South Carolina State Museum hosts the Festival of Trees. The three-day event includes a silent auction, photos with Santa, and dozens of beautifully decorated Christmas trees in the lobby of the museum.

November 22 from 7-10 p.m. is the exclusive black-tie Auction Preview. Admission to this event is $125 per person and includes valet parking and food.

November 23 from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. is the special Santa & Me event. Children have an opportunity to watch the Polar Express 4-D Experience, a fascinating 30-minute program featuring the best clips from the classic Christmas movie complete with frigid air and snowflakes, and have a photo taken with Santa. Admission to the event is $5 per person and $30 if you want a commemorative plate.

November 24 from 12-4 p.m. the Festival of Trees is open to the general public visiting the South Carolina State Museum. Admission to this event is free, although you’ll have to pay the museum’s admission to see the exhibits.

While visiting the museum be sure to visit The Cotton Mill Exchange, a 4,000 square foot gift shop at the museum. The gift shop has a bevy of clothing, books, and dinnerware with a South Carolina theme, along with educational books and toys for children.

At the Hampton-Preston Mansion the Christmas Tree is decorated with candles, an old German tradition.

3. Historic Holiday Tours

Select Days Nov 22 – Dec 31

Each year Historic Columbia offers Historic Holiday Tours, a series of guided tours of the gorgeous Robert Mills House and Hampton-Preston Mansion. Although these historic homes can be toured throughout the year, during the Christmas holiday season the homes are decorated with period-specific décor for the house.

The Robert Mills House, designed by the same architect who designed the Washington Monument, is a fascinating home to explore. The 1820s Christmas décor does not include the Christmas tree because that had not become popularized yet. Tours include the basement and first floor of the house.

The Hampton-Preston Mansion is a gorgeous home that is one of the oldest remaining structures in the city. The home is decorated with an 1860s Christmas tree but be sure to take note of the candles, a German tradition, hanging on the tree instead of electric lights.

Guided tours are offered at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday – Saturday and at 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m., and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $15 per adult and $10 per youth.

This gorgeous tree was one of hundreds decorated at the Riverbanks Zoo for the Lights Before Christmas.

4. Lights Before Christmas

Select Days Nov 23 – Dec 30

One of the biggest Christmas light displays in Columbia is found at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. The annual Lights Before Christmas includes thousands of lights and displays around the enclosures and sidewalks of the zoo. Firepits for roasting s’mores, photos with Santa, and a craft workshop make this one of the best family events for Christmas in Columbia.

Admission is $12 for adults and $10 for children.

READ MORE: An Awesome Evening at the Riverbanks Zoo’s Lights Before Christmas in Columbia, SC

5. Annual Governor’s Carolighting

Nov 24

The official start of South Carolina’s yuletide season begins with the lighting of the State Christmas Tree during the annual Governor’s Carolighting. Carolers and special performances ring through the air as kids have a chance to catch a photo with Santa and enjoy hot chocolate. Held at the State House there is plenty of room for families to enjoy the festivities through the night.

The event is free to attend.

6. Sleigh Bell Stroll

Nov 25

One of the hallmarks and most exciting family Christmas events in Columbia is the Holiday Lights on the River at Saluda Shoals Park. The dazzling display of Christmas lights, from static displays to animated wonderlands, lines the paved road through the park so visitors can admire the displays from the comfort of their car.

But before the cars hit the road you have exactly one chance to walk the route on foot and enjoy the beautiful displays in peace and quiet during the Sleigh Bell Stroll.

Admission to the event is $5 per person.

Beauitful Christmas light displays at Holiday Lights on the River.

7. Holiday Lights on the River

Nov 29 – Dec 31

The annual Holiday Lights on the River is one of the most fantastic family Christmas events because you can enjoy most of it from the comfort of your car! The heart of the event is an enormous, animated Christmas lights display along a self-driving tour through Saluda Shoals Park. At the activity center near the end of the driving route visitors can roast marshmallows, grab some hot chocolate, join a holiday craft workshop, and capture photos with Santa.

Admission is $20 per car.

8. Holiday Market

Dec 5-8

Each year the Junior League of Columbia organizes the Holiday Market as their biggest fundraiser of the year. Almost two hundred vendors come out with baked goods, arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, and all kinds of fantastic Christmas gift ideas for the four-day event. Special events include the Preview Party, Ladies Night out, and Sundaes with Santa.

General admission to the market is $8 per person (covers all four days).

9. Carolina Carillon Holiday Parade

Dec 7

The Christmas holiday is not complete without a parade! The Carolina Carillon Holiday Parade begins at 9:45 a.m. at Sumter and Laurel Streets in downtown Columbia. The parade proceeds down Sumter Street, across Gervais Street and past the South Carolina State House, and ends at Senate Street near the historic Horseshoe.

The parade features marching bands from local high schools and colleges, special performers, holiday floats, cloggers, and South Carolina celebrities.

The event is free to attend.

READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know About the Holiday Lights on the River in Columbia, SC

10. A Starry Night in Five Points

Dec 13

Five Points is one of the distinctive neighborhoods of Columbia and they put on quite the Christmas event. During A Starry Night you’ll find live music, photos with Santa, and arts and crafts for kids. All the local merchants stay open late with special Black Friday-esque sales. It’s a great time to visit Five Points to find some great Christmas gifts from local merchants!

11. Santa’s Market Craft Show

Dec 7

The one-day Santa’s Market Craft Show is hosted by the Irmo-Chapin Recreation Commission each year. The event features dozens of vendors with unique Christmas gift items like clothing, arts and crafts, jewelry, and Christmas décor.

General admission to the event is free.

12. Holly Jolly Hollywood

Select Days Dec 8 – 24

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is to watch It’s a Wonderful Life in a movie theater (I also own a DVD version to watch it at home a couple times each season). Fortunately, in Columbia there is The Nickelodeon. This locally owned arthouse hosts the annual Holly Jolly Hollywood event with special screenings of popular holiday films.

Here is the complete schedule for the 2019 season:

  • Dec 8 at 6 p.m. White Christmas
  • Dec 12 at 7:30 p.m. This Christmas
  • Dec 15 at 2 p.m. It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Dec 16 at 6 p.m. It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Dec 20 at 8:30 p.m. Friday After Next
  • Dec 21 at 1 p.m. Home Alone
  • Dec 24 at 6:30 p.m. Miracle on 34th Street

Admission is $11 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under.

READ MORE: 16 Favorite Travel Photos of Christmas in Columbia, SC

A horse drawn carriage takes visitors around a tour of the block with HIstoric Columbia during the Candlelight Tours & Carriage Rides.

13. Candlelight Tours & Carriage Rides

Dec 14

One of the more exciting one-night Christmas events is the Candlelight Tours & Carriage Rides hosted by Historic Columbia. It’s the only time visitors can tour the Robert Mills House and Hampton-Preston Mansion by candlelight!

Begin with a 15-minute carriage ride around the block with a narrator explaining the history of the neighborhood. The carriages are beautifully decorated with Christmas lights and the seats are pretty comfortable for the short ride.

After returning join one of the tours of the Robert Mills House or Hampton-Preston Mansion. Each house is decorated to fit a specific time period (1820s and 1860s, respectively) and during this special night tour the homes are lit by additional candlelight (sorry, but there are also electric lights).

Be sure to explore the small giftshop for some Christmas gift ideas and get a hot chocolate from the street vendor before calling it a wonderful night.

Candlelight tours are $5 for adults and free for youth, and a combination of candlelight tour and carriage ride is $15 for adults and $8 for children.

14. The Nutcracker

Select Days Dec 14-22

Another annual event every Christmas needs is a performance of The Nutcracker. The Columbia City Ballet puts on six performances during the week leading up to Christmas. The Nutcracker Tea before each of the matinees is a great opportunity to bring the kids along for cake, cookies, and refreshments before the performance.

Here is the complete schedule for 2019 The Nutcracker performances:

  • December 14 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
  • December 15 at 3 p.m.
  • December 21 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
  • December 22 at 3 p.m.

The Nutcracker Teas are held on December 14, 15, and 21 from 1:30-2:30 p.m.

Admission is $30 per person.

15. Christmas Wonderland

Dec 17-18

Not to be outdone by the ballet, Broadway in Columbia puts on the Christmas Wonderland Holiday Spectacular each year. The two-night event includes spectacular sets, costumes, singing, and performances sure to entertain the entire family.

The Christmas Wonderland Holiday Spectacular takes place on December 17 & 18 at 7:30 p.m.

Admission ranges from $39-$69 depending on seating preference.

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