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Midwest Travel: Ring In The Season In St. Charles, Mo.

You say you’re tired of the neighbors’ inflatable Santas, pushy crowds at the mall and The Chipmunk Song on the radio? Time to pack up the family or friends and head southwest to historic St. Charles, Mo., for a slice of old-fashioned holiday cheer.

This city on the Missouri River just west of St. Louis and 112 miles from Springfield offers a month-long Christmas Traditions festival, ending on Dec. 24. You can visit Santa, hear holiday music and do some gift shopping, but the emphasis is on how Christmas used to be celebrated -- or at least how we imagine it was.

The festival features carriage rides, chestnuts roasting over open fires, gingerbread houses, strolling carolers offering songs from the 1930s and ‘40s, train displays and a marshmallow toast on the grounds of Missouri’s first state capitol. Parades on Saturday and Sunday afternoons include Santa and the Lewis and Clark Fife and Drum Corps, named for the western explorers who set off from St. Charles in 1804.

Christmas Traditions runs Wednesday and Friday evenings from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. It kicked off the day after Thanksgiving with Santa’s arrival and a tree lighting and lasts until a Santa send-off on Christmas Eve afternoon.

Visitors pay nothing to participate in general activities or for parking. The exceptions are photos with Santa, breakfast with Santa, dinner theater, a candlelight Christmas concert at the old capitol and, of course, anything you can’t resist at the dozens of shops and restaurants. Resisting can be difficult with shops and streets festooned with holiday greenery and the aroma of warm food wafting from restaurants.

The event is in its 42nd year. A group of local shop owners interested in preserving the historical nature of the district began the festival, but the city now sponsors it.

Visitors come from all over the world although most are from the area. Organizers say many families return each year because children like to collect cards from more than 30 costumed characters, including Civil War, Frontier, Victorian and World War II Santas. Other characters wear handmade clothing reflecting their heritage and share their stories with those who stop to chat.

Also popular are photos with Santa, held at the Katy Depot in Frontier Park along the river. While waiting in line, families can view a large train display, hosted by the Frenchtown Heritage Museum. Included are a circus scene, a coal train, the Polar Express, Union Pacific Big Boy and a Victorian winter scene.

Christmas Traditions is not just for children, however. On any given weekend, St. Charles draws adults with its cafes, gift stores, bed and breakfast inns and nearby wineries, and the holiday season is no different. The festival seeks to lure couples for a romantic getaway and the chance to smooch under a “kissing ball” made of mistletoe, holly and evergreens in the Kister Park gazebo.

Crowds swell if there are warmer days, but officials say parking is usually available and within walking distance of the festivities.  Cobblestone streets may make navigating in a wheelchair difficult but sidewalks are accessible.

If you prefer to skip the holiday celebration, St. Charles has plenty to offer other times of the year. The city, with roots stretching to 1769, has Missouri’s oldest and largest historic district, which includes Main Street and Frenchtown to the north. Visitors to the First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site can learn about government in the early 1800s, and the Frenchtown Heritage Museum showcases area memorabilia. The Lewis and Clark Boat House and Nature Center highlights the famous expedition, nature trails and wildlife viewing.

The Katy Trail, the longest rails to trails project in the United States, begins in nearby Machens and runs through St. Charles as part of its 240-mile path across Missouri. The Katy Trail Depot in St. Charles is a popular stop for hikers, joggers and bikers.

Arts lovers may enjoy the Foundry Art Centre, housed in a 1940s’ train car factory and home to exhibition space, artist studios and the Grand Hall concert venue.

For a wider range of activities, check out the Ameristar Casino, the Fast Lane Classic Cars museum and St. Charles Ghost Tours. Who knows? Perhaps you will get to meet the ghost of Christmas Traditions Past.

General tourist information about St. Charles is at www.historicstcharles.com. For more details on the Christmas Traditions festival, go to www.stcharleschristmas.com.

Mary Bohlen is a freelance writer and editor in Springfield and emeritus communication faculty member at the University of Illinois Springfield.

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