Holiday Traditions in Cleveland & Akron

by | Nov 19, 2013 | Events & Festivals, Family Friendly Stuff

UPDATED: December 1, 2015 – So, it’s your first holiday season in NE Ohio, and you don’t want to miss all of the Christmas traditions that locals know about but newcomers might never hear about until they have come and gone. Here are a few of our staff’s favorite holiday traditions in Cleveland and Akron.
Holiday Light Displays:
The Saturday after Thanksgiving is when the city of Cleveland flips the switch on it’s beautiful downtown light display at the annual Winterfest celebration. But even if your travel schedule (or the fact that you hosted 83 people for your Turkey Day dinner) prevented you for seeing this magic moment, it’s worth a drive through downtown to see the lights. The lights have been centered around Playhouse Square (and the GE Chandelier) for the last several years as the traditional spot (Public Square) undergoes construction. Skip the hassle of finding a parking space and take the RTA Rapid line (our light rail train) into town to save $20 in parking fees. Take time to see the lights inside The Old Arcade (beautifully done up for the holidays) as well at the 5th Street Arcade across the street which is filled with boutique shops with handmade goods.
Another festive lighting display is on Cleveland’s west side at Crocker Park in Westlake where they usually light their tree the Saturday BEFORE Thanksgiving and the charming decorations in Chagrin Falls are so quaint that you’d expect Charles Dickens to appear! They light the town up on the Friday after Thanksgiving as well.
Akron flips the lights on its downtown tree lighting with their HolidayFest, which includes a great holiday market for shoppers at Lock 3 Park, a 150′ sledding hill and Santa arrives in an IndyCar (what else would you expect in the Rubber Capital of the World)?
Want to be inspired with ideas on how to decorate your home for the holidays this year? Akron’s Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens transforms itself each holiday season into a winter wonderland. This stately Tudor mansion, built for the founder of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, decorates in style with 21 rooms open to the public to see trees, lights and floral decorations. And with a great gift shop and cafe, you can make an afternoon of it. The house is open from Thanksgiving week through New Years. And, the Rocky River holiday home tour features a half dozen homes magically decorated (with the help of florists and designers) for the season.
A visit to A Christmas Story House is another local tradition. This modest home on W. 11th Street in the Tremont neighborhood was used for all 18 - Christmas story house 2the exterior shots for the now classic movie which debuted in 1983. After annual 24 hour TV marathons turned this sleeper of a movie into a cult classic, many fans make their annual pilgrimage to visit the home that makes every adult nostalgic for a time long ago when their only responsibilities at Christmas time were goofing off, eating cookies and unwrapping presents (sigh). Every weekend between Thanksgiving and New Years there are patient fans who line up to tour A Christmas Story House Museum and splurge at the gift shop across the street before hitting a trendy bar or restaurant in the Tremont neighborhood. And, the Christmas Story 5k race that goes past most of the sites in Cleveland used in the filming of the movie is Saturday, December 5th and is the only race we know of where runners don leg lamp costumes, and it is a ball to watch!
Nela park lightsGeneral Electric’s worldwide lighting division is called Nela Park, and every year they put up a fabulous display. The neighborhood (East Cleveland) is a shadow of the days since GE set up shop in 1913 (it was the first ever industrial park in the world) so most visitors now just slowly drive past it to ooh and aah and then head to nearby Cleveland Heights or Shaker Square for dinner or a movie! Nela Park also makes and donates the lights and ornaments for the National Christmas tree on the Ellipse in Washington DC and has every year since 1922.
University Circle’s Holiday Circlefest – On Sunday, December 7th, more than a dozen cultural institutions are open AND FREE to the public all day. And Wade Oval, the green space in the middle of University Circle, has an ice rink and is a great viewing area to watch the winter lantern parade. If you haven’t figured out which museum to visit first as a newcomer to town, this is your chance to peak into all of them for free and get a taste of which ones you’d like to revisit to spend an afternoon.
Cool Places to Shop for Unique, Locally Made Gifts:

78th Street Studios – This massive former American Greetings Co. warehouse has been transformed by a new set of artists (of every kind), and they fill three floors with galleries of every type (wood, paintings, sculpture, fiber arts, glass, etc.). Live music, pop up restaurant nibbles and more  are available every third Friday. The December 20th (Friday) holiday open house in the PM is perfect for those procrastinators that wait until the week before Christmas to do a mad rush of shopping!
Holiday Art Walks – In every Cleveland neighborhood – Little Italy, Tremont, Waterloo, Larchmere (next to Shaker Square), Oberlin – there is a night or two where all the boutique shops and independent restaurants stay open extra late and make is easy to support local artists and craftsmen.
Koehn Sculptors, 1936 S. Green Road in South Euclid – Owner Norbert Koehn is a German immigrant to Cleveland who has a beautiful shop in this east side suburb filled with hundreds of gorgeous ornaments, hand carved Nativity scenes and more. They also run an adorable cafe and tea house on the property.
ArtCraft Studio Building Holiday Open House – In early December each year this six floor warehouse, which is an artist’s co-op, opens to the public to show off its wares (fiber art, jewelry, clay, paintings, metals, etc.).
Here are some other cool local shops from the best Cleveland blog, Freshwater. If you don’t get their weekly emails, you need to sign up! They get the inside scoop before anyone else on new restaurants, cool new shops, funky neighborhood happenings, etc. is a nice blog with additional ideas also.
The Best Little Gift Shops That Also Support Local Non-Profits:

Cleveland MetroParks Nature Shops – Cool, nature inspired gifts and apparel that you just won’t find in other stores (located in Cuyahoga Heights at the CanalWay Center, North Chagrin Nature Center in Mayfield Village and the Rocky River Nature Center in North Olmsted).
Cleveland Botanical Garden – Garden Store – Whoever buys for this shop and sets up the displays should be a given a raise and a promotion! This is one the best nonprofit gift shops in town, and you usually end up buying yourself presents also!
BayArts – A visual arts campus in the former home of John Huntington (former partner of John D. Rockefeller) in Bay Village has great local arts and crafts for sale.
Rock Hall Gift Store – For the music or nostalgia lover in your family.
The Museum Store at the Cleveland Museum of Art – Totally redone for the recent opening of the beautiful Ames Atrium, this shop has beautiful art inspired items from the very affordable to the pricey.
Great Lakes Science Center’s Gift Store – From freeze dried astronaut food to science experiment kits, this store has very creative gifts.
Holden Arboretum’s Treehouse Store – Beautiful earth and gardening inspired gifts.
Lake Erie Nature & Science Center – Kid oriented with great books, hands on kits and more.
MOCA Cleveland (Museum of Contemporary Art) – The gift shop is as cool as you’d think a modern art museum’s would be.
Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens – Great gifts for home and garden.
Here is a giant listing of holiday craft fairs that The Plain Dealer curates.
Concerts & Shows:
Apollo’s Fire – The best baroque band in the country according to Classical Music Magazine! Their holiday concerts this year include Handel’s Messiah and are all in early December.
Cleveland Orchestra – Their Christmas concerts are stretched out over several weekends in December and with more than 100 people in both the Orchestra and the Chorus, this concert is worthy of any stage in the world.
Great Lakes Theater – The classical resident company at Playhouse Square does a fabulous job presenting A Christmas Carol. The staging and special effects make is feel like you are seeing it for the first time even if you are 70 years old!
CityMusic – FREE performances by a professional chamber orchestra for five shows in local churches scattered from Willoughby, University Heights, Cleveland’s Slavic Village to Lakewood.
Ballet Theatre of Ohio – Their Nutcracker performance at Akron’s Civic Theater is an annual must for families of all ages!
Cleveland Play House – A Christmas Story (set in Cleveland so it’s a local favorite) is back at Cleveland Play House, which is the resident theatre company at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre.
Tuba Christmas – Begun in New York in the 1970’s, Tuba Christmas now happens in locations all over the world, including the First Baptist Church in Cleveland Heights. Provided as a free concert (a gift to the community), it costs just $10 to register to play your tuba (or any other low brass instrument). This year’s is the 35th anniversary, and, typically, 400-500 performers sign up!
Other Window & Tree Displays:
Beginning in the 1950’s, Akron area families would flock to the animated holiday window displays in the downtown storefronts of both O’Neil’s and Polsky’s. By the end of the 1980’s, both stores were gone, leaving a void in local holiday family traditions. Downtown Akron Partnership brought the vintage displays back to the Akron community in 1999. These holiday displays can be found in the University of Akron Polsky’s Building from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
And after several years in hiatus, the Festival of Trees, organized by Cleveland Play House, is back with a fabulous display in the lobby of the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square.
The Cleveland Botanical Garden recently created a holiday event, Glow, that has become an instant classic. It features a gingerbread house contest (from amateur to professional, they are all WAY more amazing than you would ever imagine), huge evergreens all over the complex decorated by local garden clubs, live music, a cafe with holiday treats and a gift shop that is one of the best in Cleveland (no matter what the time of year).
Tower City Center, the name for the shopping area inside the Terminal Tower on Public Square has gone through ups and downs in terms of the types of stores inside the mall, but their Christmas traditions are cool including having your kids take a picture with The Toy Soldier (real live guy who is at least 6’4″!) , Bruce the talking Spruce or Santa Claus, all alongside the beautiful jumping fountains in the mall.
The December 5th Holiday Lanterns Tour at Hale Farm & Village in Bath, takes visitors on a tour of what Christmas would have been like in 1863. This working farm and village demonstrates early American crafts and trade so when your kids are whining for a PlayStation after your budget is maxed out, a trip back in time 150 years might be just what they need to remember the true meaning of the holidays.
Seasonal Outdoor Ice Skating Rinks:

Akron’s Lock 3 Park – Free admission, skate rentals are just $3 (the 10,000 SF rink is largest outdoor rink in Ohio).
University Circle – Cleveland has a rink at University Circle. It also has free admission and $3 skate rentals. And while it’s a small rink, the kids smile just as big when they flail around for the first time on skates and then enjoy a hot chocolate!
Rockefeller Greenhouse – The city of Cleveland’s public greenhouse features an annual poinsettia sale; this year scheduled for December 6th and 7th from 10 am-4 pm. Located at 750 E. 88th Street (just off of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive near I-90), it’s a great way to stock up on these cheerful indoor plants that all hit the garbage can on January 2nd. Call 216 664-3103 for more info.

My niece & nephews waiting for The Polar Express, 2004

Dan, Amanda & Mike Garn, my niece & nephews waiting to board the The Polar Express in December 2004 (ah, memories that last a lifetime!).

Every city seems to have captured the magic of the popular children’s book The Polar Express, and the Cleveland/Akron version is pretty special aboard the Cuyahoga Valley National Railroad, which runs right through the National Park. The kids who seem to enjoy it most are those who still believe in the North Pole and Santa Claus, but the adults taking them on this nighttime ride in their pajamas have just as much fun! These tickets are hard to get. Call right away as they always sell out. Hot chocolate and cookies are served on the train by Santa’s elves!
Here is a list of places to cut down your own Christmas tree in NE Ohio. They smell better, last longer and you are supporting a local farmer!
Finally, we need to mention Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale, a beer so good that its release date goes viral on Twitter and Facebook when it’s announced every fall and fans stand in line to grab one of the first six packs sold every October. Grab yours at your favorite grocery or beverage store or visit the gift shop at the brew pub in Ohio City for a bigger selection.
And, Mitchells’s make the BEST peppermint ice cream in the entire world. Visit their flagship store on W. 25th in Ohio City to pick up a few pints for the holidays.
Want to make sure your recruits and newly transplanted employees are quickly connected to all of the great things happening in NE Ohio? Executive Arrangements has been matching candidates and their families to the lifestyle in Cleveland, Akron and Canton since 1979. For more info call 216.231.9311.