The team at Showcase gets busier than the proverbial one-armed paperhanger during the Holidays, and we’re guessing it’s like that for you, too. There are so many things happening; parties, events, festivals, and a plethora of food, drink, and confectionery – it’s hard to keep track of the Who, What, and Where of it all.
With that in mind, our in-house Elves (ie, the Marketing department) have their fingers on the pulse of the fun stuff going on in Marion County. After all, it’s a big part of their job to know what’s happening in the community (but they also really like buffets and sparkly things), so they usually have the good scoop. This informational largesse we now happily pass on to our readers in the spirit of the season, however you celebrate.
Here’s a handy list of some of the big celebrations going on so you can plan for a vivacious and joyful holiday season.
Appleton Museum of Art Annual Exhibition
From November 4 through January 7, the Appleton Museum celebrates a beloved Ocala holiday tradition with “A Dickens Christmas”, and it’s as charming and delightful as Scrooge dancing in his nightgown.
Victorian England lives again in a miniature village that takes up most of the museum’s first floor, complete with twinkling lights, distinctive period architecture, and snow-covered little streets. The exhibit features something new each year, and this time the village is dotted with ornately decorated, themed trees from the collection of Ocala cardiologist Paul Urban and his family, and to say it’s magical doesn’t really do it justice. Alongside the Dickens Village, the Appleton will display an extensive collection of nutcrackers from around the world. And that’s just the first floor.
Christmas and Charles Dickens are oddly, inextricably linked together – and we say ‘oddly’ because the themes in his work are a stark exploration of poverty, orphanism, child labor and labor exploitation in mid-19th Century London. Dickens’ own father was thrown into debtor’s prison and forced to hard labor, and the author himself struggled with financial hardship before he became a bestselling novelist. But apparently – like most Victorians – he really loved Christmas. He wrote three Christmas stories before the one he’s most famous for, and four more after it, but “A Christmas Carol” is almost universally regarded as one of his best, and a staple of the season that has transcended the novella over the intervening 150 years since its publication.
On the second floor, the yearly Christmas Tree exhibit transforms the space into a living forest. Trees are decorated by community groups and organizations, including Bridge to Hope, Campus USA Credit Union, Hands Up Communications, Hiers-Baxley/Highland Memorial Park, Jack and Jill of America, and Urban Counseling.
To top it all off, you can visit the museum for free on Community Day, December 2 and see all of the Christmas exhibits, along with the Appleton’s special exhibit “Skylines to Hemlines: Art Deco Design From the Permanent Collection”. Kids (and adults) can create holiday crafts in the Artspace, have photos taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus (again, adults too; no judgment), and there will be food trucks onsite throughout the day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“The fall and winter holidays have a way of bringing the community together,” says Appleton Director, Jason Steuber. “There’s no better way to spend time with family and friends to enjoy festive holiday displays and world-class art.”
Appleton Museum of Art: “A Dickens Christmas”
4333 E. Silver Springs Blvd, Ocala
November 16 – January 9
Ticket Info: https://www.appletonmuseum.org/visit/plan-your-visit/
Urban Family Community Day
10am – 5pm
4333 E. Silver Springs Blvd, Ocala
October 14, 2023 – January 14, 2024
3rd Annual Ocala Holiday Grinch Fest at Tuscawilla Park
Everybody loves the story of the stingy Scrooge-ish character whose miserly heart expands with the spirit of the season, and you just know The Grinch would have hung out with old Ebenezer if they had ever met. Surprisingly, the furry green guy seems to throw quite the party; the previous two Grinch Fests were so popular, it’s back for a third year and is a big hit with families and kids. The Grinch of course will be there, chaperoned by Santa and his Elves, plus lots of holiday vendors where you can purchase artisan crafts and gifts. Food trucks will be on site so nobody goes hungry, and the air is filled with holiday music to get everyone into the spirit of the season. It’s also free and open to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. December 3, so you won’t want to miss it.
Christmas Light Spectacular
Florida Horse Park is one of Ocala’s biggest enthusiasts of community celebration and support. From helping provide hurricane shelter to promoting charity and fundraising efforts and hosting polo matches, they throw the gates wide and welcome people into the lush, expansive grounds. Late November sees a spectacular, month-long transformation. It’s like that neighbor you had down the street who just loved to deck his house with the best Christmas display he could muster, and who always tried to top himself every year.
The drive-through light show – created by St. John Lutheran Church and School – winds its way around nearly two miles of the park, during which you can listen to accompanying music on KCountry 93.7 and drive at your leisure – but that’s not the only thing to see and do. Keeping with the twinkly theme, there’s a skating rink if you have the urge to see if you can still manage that Figure 8 you did as a kid, plus tons of walk-through displays and tableaux you can see up close. Food trucks will be on site every night of the event, with everything you could want from a full meal to a warm drink.
WEC Winter Wonderland
On the other side of town, WEC gets in on the action with its third annual holiday extravaganza so packed, you’ll probably want to make multiple visits over the course of the month-long celebration. Because it’s a lot. You remember tales of magical fairylands when you were a kid, where friendly elves lived and toys came to life? We’re pretty sure WEC took every single one of those stories and somehow brought them to life right here in Ocala. Their December calendar is full of events, music, and activities, plus all the shopping your credit card can handle – so pace yourself.
Everything starts off with the big lighting ceremony at the Grand Plaza, which has by that time been strung with over a million twinkling, glowing bulbs, so it becomes a dancing little galaxy of its own, bathed in borrowed starlight and the scent of garlands. The sensory input alone is enough to make you a little dizzy.
After that, for the next month WEC is basically a satellite North Pole, and Santa has an office there. Kids can come to meet and even have breakfast at Stirrups with St. Nick, or write letters to the aforementioned Elves that are still working back home. The ones who came to Florida for the WEC detail can be seen scampering through the Plaza, dodging carolers, stilt walkers and toy soldiers on their way.
There’s plenty of great entertainment for everyone, including live music on Fridays and special performances on select dates. The Holiday Craft show is back, too; it’s Ocala’s largest indoor bazaar and feels like Santa’s Workshop outsourced right here in the middle of horse country. Over 300 artisans and craftspeople offer handmade goods you can fill your Christmas list with all in one place, after which you can head out for a bite to eat, see a concert, or get lost for a while in the Christmas Tree Maze.
Ocala Symphony Orchestra
Maestro Matt Wardell and the OSO are busy people during the holidays, kicking off with the Symphony Under the Lights on the first day of December. We don’t get snow in Florida, but the cool thing about that is we get to sit outside in Tuscawilla Park with chairs and blankets under a starry sky and listen to beautiful music. The OSO and Ocala Youth Symphony play holiday classics and new pieces on the outdoor stage in a free concert for the community every year, and it’s a beloved Ocala event.
Not ones to lose momentum – they are musicians, after all – the orchestra follows up over the next two evenings with Pops! Goes the Holidays inside the Reilly Center. Playing timeless favorites and new interpretations, it’s another Ocala tradition that never fails to entertain and get everyone into the spirit of the season.
Festivals and Markets
Not to keep tooting this horn, but again – we live in Florida, so being outdoors in December is what we live for after the stifling heat of our summer. While Northerners are bundled in scarves and mittens and shoveling their driveways wearing sturdy boots, our holiday wardrobe consists of light jackets and perhaps a cheery hat. No ugly Christmas sweaters for us; the closest we come to that might be overly-garish sleigh earrings.
Yeah, we’re gloating just a little bit.
This is all a rather braggadocio way of saying that ‘Tis the Season not only for reindeer games and dreidels, but getting out and just enjoying the community bustle.
Popular and vibrant, the Fa La La La La At the Holidays festival is, in a word, spectacular. It’s a free community event in Circle Square Commons town square that goes from 4-8 pm on December 2, and they pack a lot into those four hours. There’s a golf cart parade, raffles, tons of food and drink, plus live music and dancing, and you’ll find some great gift ideas at the shops.
The Ocala Downtown Market has seen a mighty resurgence since Covid lockdown; often there are so many vendors now that the booths spill out of the pavilion, onto the sidewalk, and down both sides of the street. Sometimes they even wind around the entire block. That’s just the regular market on an average Saturday.
The Holiday Market is a whole other box of tinsel. An explosion of music, a smorgasbord of food trucks, hundreds of vendors, activities, games, and other entertainment permeate the entire downtown area from the market pavilion. Everything from clothing to jewelry, housewares, produce, and specialty items can be found, plus lots of holiday items and gifts. You’ll want to check out each booth to make sure you don’t miss anything.
Joining in the fun is the Marion Therapeutic Riding Association with their 4th Annual Holiday Market, which helps support Small Business Saturday and raises awareness for the MTRA’s outreach programs. Over 40 local artists and vendors gather at the MTRA to showcase their creations, so you’re bound to find something for whatever holiday or holidays you celebrate, from Kwanzaa to Hanukkah to Christmas. There’s also a car show, photo booth, a pie baking/pie eating contest, pony rides, and live music and dance performances. It’s a great family event with plenty of activities and games for kids, too, all in the great outdoors – and it’s free!
Reilly Arts Center
Remember what we said about Dickens and the Victorians loving Christmas? We weren’t kidding; they really did – if sometimes in a rather macabre and dark sort of way, but that doesn’t make it any less charming or festive.
Victorians had a penchant for telling ghost stories at Christmas (hello, Jacob Marley!), which was probably handed down to them from the Celts and Vikings. They loved to sit around a fire and tell whimsical tales of meddling phantoms who pushed us in the direction of our better angels and away from the disasters of our own hubris, and no one liked a happy ending more than a Victorian.
“Phantasmagoria: A Most Haunted Victorian Christmas” picks up that tradition, holding the audience spellbound with a story about hauntings and mysteries and mythic creatures and delivering terror and hilarity in equal measure. The critically acclaimed performance troupe presents a thoughtful, entertaining, and creative performance once again at the Reilly Center; if you’re into a little dark humor and folklore for your holidays, this is a good place to start.
The Nutcracker is kind of like the OG “Toy Story”, when you think about it. The Victorians really had a thing for slightly twisted but really creative fantasy yarns: In this one, nutcrackers and dolls come to life to battle an army of warring enemy mice, emerging victorious to triumph and reach the Land of Sweets, domain of the Sugar Plum Fairy. There, young heroine Clara, who has saved the Nutcracker Prince, is regaled with a show of beautiful dancing and a parade of food that would make even Martha Stewart swoon (the Victorians had a big thing for food, too).
This timeless Tchaikovsky classic is presented by Dance Alive National Ballet and the PNC Foundation from December 18-20 at the Reilly Arts Center. You’ll be hearing the music for days afterwards and craving sugar plums all the way to New Year’s.
Reilly Arts Center
500 NE 9th St, Ocala
December 18-20 at 7pm
Adults $15 to $35, Students $10: Purchase Here
If all the above isn’t enough for you – well, what can we say except But wait! There’s more! Marion County is practically buzzing with a cornucopia of stuff to see and do in every community; here’s a quick rundown of some of them. Additional details for all these events can be found at the Ocala Marion official event website.
Trains for Christmas 2023
The 13th Annual “Trains for Christmas” is presented by the Meadowbrook Model Railroaders and is a free train show where you can enjoy multiple layouts, a scavenger hunt, and prize raffle at Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Dunnellon. For more information, contact Bill Quast at 352-209-5422 or email email@example.com.
Light Up Lake Lillian
This City of Belleview celebration is on Southeast Lillian Circle, with Santa, face painting, bounce houses, games, crafts, cookie decorating and holiday vendors.
SE Robinson Road, Belleview
December 2 from 2pm – 7pm
Santa on the Square
Santa’s in the Downtown Square Gazebo from 6-8 pm December 5th, 12th, and 14th, and will be available for photos alongside Mrs. Claus (please bring your own phone or camera). Free and open to the public.
Dunnellon Christmas Parade
Ocala Christmas Golf Cart Parade
The parade starts at City Hall and wends its way through historic Downtown Ocala. If you would like information about sponsorships, registration and the parade route, visit www.ocalamainstreet.org/parade for more details.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Winter Solstice!
All of us at Showcase wish you and yours a wonderful and safe holiday season, and the very best in the new year to come.