Island Experience

Small-town Holiday Fun in the San Juan Islands

Local traditions make the season bright with tree festivals, artisan faires, an old-fashioned Christmas market and more

When I moved to the San Juan Islands seven years ago, I was amazed at how islanders celebrate the holidays. It's like stepping back in time.

From Halloween through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve, locals go all out to make their towns and villages cheery during the dark winter evenings. Colorful light displays, town gatherings, Santa arriving by sailboat, and of course, the big tree lightings.

I was swept up by new friends in their favorite holiday activities that locals cherish—and now I wouldn't live without.

Friday Harbor Holiday Lights, San Juan Islands, John Sinclair
Lopez Island Holidays, San Juan Islands, John Sinclair

 

Sparkling Island Lights

Each of the San Juan Islands has its own holiday flair. Last year, I went to the Friday Harbor Island Lights Festival, and it felt like I had been transported into a fairy tale - or even the last scene of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, where everyone in Whoville comes down to see the tree, even little Cindy Lou Who. At the foot of Spring Street, overlooking the harbor, everybody dresses in their winter finery, a choir sings carols, a band plays, and at the right moment ... voila!  The two historic elm trees in the tiniest park in the world—Memorial Park—brighten up the chilly night with literally thousands of sparkling white lights. This miniscule park was created in the 1920s to commemorate the military service personnel who died in World War I, so this small-town tradition is especially meaningful at this time of year.

You can also do an island-hop holiday, with the equally charming Lopez Village Gathering & Holiday Lighting, with its magical torchlight parade, and the Eastsound Holiday Celebration and Tree Lighting on Orcas Island, where a beautiful, live evergreen tree is decorated on the Village Green, and the whole town comes out to raise a cup of cheer. Whichever island you visit, festivities abound!

Friday Harbor Holiday Artisan Fair, San Juan Island, Visit San Juans
iday Harbor Holiday Artisan Fair, San Juan Island, Visit San Juans

 

Browsing for Beautiful Artisan Gifts

I love to shop for unique handmade gifts, because I get to pass on the artist's story of how the piece was made. Artisan fairs in the islands all happen Thanksgiving weekend, giving a festive kickoff to the season. Every year my friends and I bundle up and walk to the Friday Harbor Elementary School for the San Juan Island Artisans Holiday Marketplace. We drink hot cider, eat too many sugar cookies say hello to artist friends who have spent months creating their best work for this show.

I try to do all my shopping for the holidays at the three island fairs and at the cutest shops on the planet in Friday Harbor, Lopez Village and Eastsound on Orcas Island. Taking the ferry over to Eastsound or Lopez Village for a day is a mini getaway in itself.  The Artisan Faire at the Odd Fellows Hall is a gathering of Orcas Island's best, and the Lopez Islander Resort Annual Holiday Craft Fair brings together dozens of talented Lopez artists in one place—what a treat! You can find paintings, fiber art, scarfs, pottery, candles, woodwork, heritage preserves and other foods, sheepskins, jewelry and tons of other cool treasures. 

Rosario Resort Holiday Tree Festival, Orcas Island, Visit San Juans
Rosario Resort Holiday Tree Festival, Orcas Island, Visit San Juans

 

Rosario's Tree Festival

Last year, a few friends and I went to The Mansion Restaurant at Rosario Resort on Christmas Day, and it was wonderful. The whole place was lit up—yes—like a Christmas tree. We must have ordered everything on the lunch menu, and shared a cheese plate, truffle fries and other bites of deliciousness. Chef Raymond Southern has connected with farmers on the island to fill the menu with the freshest food possible. Afterwards, we spent time in the lobby looking at the beautiful Christmas trees created by local non-profit organizations. We loved the Orcas Island Historical Museum's tree, decorated with historical photographs, and the Orcas Island Animal Shelter's tree, covered with handmade puppy ornaments. Cute overload!

On Saturdays, there is also an organ and piano concert in the Mansion’s Music Room, where you can learn about the history of the Moran Mansion, and watch historic footage from the heyday of silent films, with the 1,972-pipe organ as soundtrack to excerpts from Phantom of the Opera and the Moran Photograph Collection.

 

Friday Harbor Brickworks Old-Fashioned Christmas Market, San Juan Island, Visit San Juans
Friday Harbor Brickworks Old-Fashioned Christmas Market, San Juan Island, Visit San Juans

 

Old-Fashioned Christmas Market

This special holiday weekend market was inspired by the Christmas markets in Germany, with lights, sweets, music and gifts everywhere. This sweet little market takes place on a weekend in December at Brickworks in the heart of Friday Harbor, and it truly feels like taking a step back in time. All sorts of activities are happening with kid’s cookie decorating, farm animals, hay ride, and magical visits from the Sugar Plum Fairy and Santa. We peeled roasted chestnuts and drank hot toddies while sitting around the bonfire listening to a fiddler play Christmas tunes.

Lopez Village Holiday Torchlight Parade, Lopez Island, San Juan Islands, Visit San Juans
Lopez Village Holiday Torchlight Parade, Lopez Island, San Juan Islands, Visit San Juans

 

Lopez Torchlight Parade

This year, I'm going to get to Lopez Island to go to their tree-lighting and holiday gathering. Every year they have a tiny torchlight parade that involves the whole community, carrying lights and candles through Lopez Village, ending in a festival of sweets and hot drinks. The perfect way to end an island holiday celebration—I can't wait!

Happy Holidays!

 

Shannon Borg, www.shannonborg.com, www.oysterous-and-vine.com

by Shannon Borg

Shannon is a staff writer for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. She lives in Friday Harbor, where she writes about wine, travel...and oysters! Find her at www.oysterous-and-vine.com

San Juan Islands Holiday Lights, Orcas Island, Photography by Robert Harrison

Celebrate the Holidays Island-Style!

Charming shops, hot cider and roasted chestnuts, tree-lighting festivals make the holidays special in the San Juan Islands.