Royal Horticultural Society gardens’ winter sculpture walks, lights and fairs are very popular so book a long way ahead. From 7 Dec to 5 Jan, RHS Wisley, Surrey, has a new light trail with giant floral illuminations for its Glow event and an Enchanted Botanical Christmas in a glasshouse (£11/£7). Near Harrogate, RHS Harlow Carr (£10/£5, Thur-Sat until 28 Dec) has an illuminated walk and sculpture trail; at Essex’s RHS Hyde Hall (£12/£6, weekends until 15 Dec) children can make Christmas crafts and meet the bearded one (£14 extra). In Devon, Rosemoor’s Glow illuminations run through a winter garden (£10.62/£5.31, until 4 Jan) and Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden (free) has a 70-metre “cathedral of light”.
Sherry tasting, Yorkshire & London
Sherry, the most festive of British tipples, is now the preferred nectar of many a connoisseur. Get some practice in before the big day so you know exactly which to sip when The Snowman comes on by tasting a few in a specialist bar. Ambiente is a tapas restaurant with branches in York, Leeds and Hull, offering sherry flights, a sherry menu and staff trained to advise on sherry pairings. In London, Bar Pepito in Kings Cross has a great sherry menu and serves taster flights, or download the London Sherry Trail map and tour 47 bars specialising in the fortified wine all across the city.
Sustainable Christmas fairs
Stockings full of plastic tat, bins full of rubbish … Christmas can be shockingly wasteful, but new sustainable festive fairs make green-gifting easier. Those near Manchester today can make it to Christmas Shouldn’t Cost the Earth (11am-7pm) at Hatch on Oxford Road, featuring 25 zero-waste brands and makers. Brighton hosts its first Zero Waste Christmas Market on 15 Dec (entry from £5.98) at the Old Market in Hove; in Godalming, Surrey, the Vegan and Eco Living Christmas Fayre brings ethical gifts and sustainable Christmas food to Surrey on 8 Dec; and Warrington, Cheshire, hosts The Sustainable Living Christmas Market on 14 Dec.
East London’s Sustainable Christmas Fair (1 Dec, book workshops in advance) at Core Clapton has wreath-making, jumper upcycling, soap- and terrarium-making, plus conscious fashion, skin care and jewellery stalls. Also in the capital, the Zero Waste Christmas Market (7 Dec, entry from £7.49) is at the Boiler House on Brick Lane.
Classical favourite Handel’s Messiah oratorio is being performed at the city’s modern Waterfront Hall (14 Dec, tickets from £20) by the professional Ulster Orchestra and the 120-strong Belfast Philharmonic Choir, with four acclaimed soloists led by conductor Ruben Jais. While you’re in the city, make time to visit the Queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland, Hillsborough Castle and Gardens (£11.40 adult, £5.70 child), 12 miles south of Belfast, where winter events include a natural wreath-making workshop (13 and 14 Dec, £45), and festive family weekends with storytelling, arts and crafts, dancing and drumming, historic characters and Father Christmas (14-15, 21-23 and 27 Dec-5 Jan).
Classic Christmas films, Buckinghamshire
Snuggling on the sofa to watch classics such as It’s A Wonderful Life, or Home Alone or the Muppet Christmas Carol is all well and good, but it’s more fun to make a proper night of it with a trip out to Neighbourhood Cinema’s seasonal set-up, The Ice Palace, in a new venue at St Michael’s Church in Beaconsfield. Guests can book a date night bundle, which includes a bottle of prosecco, popcorn, ice-cream and a blanket; or a family bundle, including two cocktails and two “elf” boxes with snacks for kids.
• Screenings 16-21 Dec, adults from £19.50, date night bundle £69 for two, family bundle (2+2) £89, neighbourhoodcinema.co.uk
The Christmas House, Hastings
The Tudor House is a restored, 16th-century half-timbered home filled with antiques, taxidermy and not a single mod con. The creation of local photographer/design shop owner AG Hendy, it opens to visitors several times a year, and in December becomes The Christmas House, with old-time decorations and greenery accentuating its rustic, pared-back style. Sit by the fire in a wingback chair to read a specially written fairytale, The Elves and The Baker, or come on Christmas Eve for spiced wine.
It’s a holiday let, too.
• Open 14, 15, 21-23 Dec, £5 adult, £3 child, Christmas Eve £7/£3. From £1,200 for three nights, with champagne and breakfast
Carol-oke, Liverpool, London & Manchester
Think your Good King Wenceslas blows away your mate’s Ding Dong Merrily? Book a group into a private wooden “hutte” booth with a Carol-oke machine for a seasonal sing-song at one of three Bar Hutte venues, in Liverpool, London’s Hyde Park, or Manchester’s Spinningfields. Order a hot gin with gingerbread to soothe the vocal chords; get into the après ski vibe with a “shot ski” – a real ski loaded with shot glasses; or classic Alpine cocktail, such as a creamy custardy bombardino, hailing from the Italian Alps.
• Huttes from £40 in Liverpool, £45 in Manchester and £80 in London, for 1¾hours for 6-10 people, barhutte.co.uk
Tea dance and Winterland, Kent
Embrace the kitsch of Christmas at Margate’s Dreamland theme park, which becomes Winterland Margate for December. After a mulled wine or three you’ll be ready for the vintage rides or Roller Disco. Makers from Kent’s branch of handcrafted and vintage website Etsy supply many of the Christmas fair stalls, and others are stacked with vegan homebakes. For another gift option, there’s a journal or album-making workshop on 15 Dec. Children can attend readings by local author Tim Johnston of his new book My Penguin Family. There’s also an afternoon Christmas tea dance on 10 Dec.
• Adult entry from £13, 7, 8, 14, 15, then daily 21-31 Dec, tea dance £4, dreamland.co.uk
Festive light trail, Wiltshire
Festooned with 100,000 pea-lights, a new Tunnel of Light at Stourhead National Trust gardens forms part of a one-mile light trail, with twinkling hedgerows, a laser garden, a scented fire garden and a “fibre- optic lawn”. Visitors can toast marshmallows at fire pits, take a spin on a Victorian fairground ride and drink spiced cider as they explore the exotic trees, temples and a vast tree-lined lake.
• Runs until 30 Dec, £18/£12 nationaltrust.org.uk
Twilight trains in the Forest of Dean
Many steam railways run Christmassy events: Perrygrove Railway in the small town of Coleford, in the west of the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, has a series of twilight departures through illuminated woodlands (Fri and Sat between 6-21 Dec and on 22 and 23, from £10.50pp). Nearby, the spectacular Clearwell Caves (from £14), where iron ore has been mined for 4,500 years, will be decorated with Christmas lights from 29 Nov-24 Dec.
As well as the spectacular rinks at Hampton Court, Somerset House and the Natural History Museum, London has a new ice rink at the recently opened London City Island, a new development of homes and creative hubs close to Canning Town (12-22 Dec, £8 adult, £5.50 child, under-5s free). From 12-15 Dec, a Christmas market features craft workshops – from pom-pom baubles to Christmas crackers, plus festive wine tastings (starting at £20pp). Liverpool’s waterfront has a 30-metre ice slide and ice rink as part of its Ice Festival (£12 adult, 3-12s £10, slide £6 for three rides). The Belfast SSE Arena (21 Dec-3 Jan, from £4) has skating, including seats to see the Belfast Giants ice hockey team. The Eden Project will host Cornwall’s only indoor ice rink in one of its biomes (£7 adult, £6 child, until 23 Feb) and a festival (until 30 Dec, £26 adult, child £13.50, under-5s free) that includes a Christmas jumper swap, Luke Jerram’s Gaia Earth artwork, and 21 musicians playing three shows every night.
Gig, dance show and panto in one!
Currently touring the UK, The Lock In Christmas Carol combines music, dance and theatre with a tale about the regulars of The Olde Fighting Cocks pub planning a folk and hip-hop night, only to be scuppered by the Scrooge-like landlady’s plans to run a community-upsetting techno night instead. Remaining dates include Barnsley Civic (30 Nov), Norwich playhouse (7 Dec), Gateshead Sage (11), Bury Met (12), Cambridge Junction (18), Basingstoke Haymarket (19) and London Stanley Halls (20).
• Seven years and over, tickets from £17, thedemonbarbers.co.uk
Robins’ nest box workshop, Carmarthenshire
At the Llanelli Wetland Centre, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust is running workshops to teach nature lovers how to help our favourite Christmas bird species to survive through the predicted harsh winter. Participants build their own robins’ nest box, to accommodate springtime chicks, then can head off to wander the wooden walkways across 450 acres of lakes, ponds and reed beds. The centre is home to rare species such as the Hawaiian (or nene) goose, which visitors can fatten up by feeding by hand (though not for the Christmas dinner table).
• 15 and 22 Dec, £10 per box, admission £8.81/£5.54, wwt.org.uk
Christmas ghost tales, Portsmouth & Hull
Festive ghost stories were an essential part of dark winter nights for centuries, particularly in Victorian times, and this Christmas tradition has been revived for a spooky candlelit reading session by the fire at Wymering Manor (3 Dec, £15). It’s the oldest listed building in Portsmouth, and claims a number of resident ghosts. Similarly, at Burton Constable Hall (15 Dec, £20pp), an impressive Elizabethan country house near Hull, there’s a ghostly Christmas play, Festive Spirits, with time to explore the hall, plus mulled wine and mince pies. The show moves to Hull City Hall on 18 and 19 Dec (£7).
Carols in castles
With opulent rooms full of antiques and oil paintings, 800-year-old Fyvie Castle, 25 miles north-east of Aberdeen, has hosted King William of Scotland, Robert the Bruce and Charles I. It’s a suitable setting for a carol concert by the St John Festival Choir, conducted by composer Paul Mealor (7 Dec, £12 entry). In the rather more ruined Corfe Castle near the Dorset coast, welly-wearing carollers will be on song in the grounds on 8 and 13 Dec (admission £10 adult); while at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, AKA Downton Abbey, a posh evening of champagne and song (18 Dec, £120pp) includes a tour of the firelit rooms before carols round the tree.
Celtic festival, County Armagh
The Celtic archaeological site of Emain Machan at Navan Fort, a pre-Christian archaeological site, is holding an evening dedicated to Celtic Yuletide traditions, covering the importance of mistletoe to druids, the symbolism of the moon and stars, plus music and seasonal snacks. Sadly the dawn winter solstice event is already sold out, but consider for next year. Meanwhile the city of Armagh has a Georgian Christmas Festival this weekend, with stalls, guided tours, workshops on silhouette cutting, “lofty letter writing” and wax sealing, twilight tours of the grand Milford House, and evensong in St Patrick’s Church.
• 6 Dec, £18 adult, £10 child, visitarmagh.com
Harbour lights, Cornwall
The winter festival in the cute harbour town of Mousehole, near Penzance, sees coloured lanterns and lights strung across alleyways, reaching up into the surrounding hillsides and adorning bobbing sailing boats in the harbour. Even St Clement’s Island, 500 metres off shore, is decorated with an illuminated Celtic cross. For the launch day on 14 Dec, local choirs will join the Pendeen Silver Band for a concert on the North Quay.
• 14 Dec to 4 Jan, mouseholelights.org.uk
Vegan Christmas cookery courses, Birmingham & Stroud
Nut roast isn’t the only option. Unusual ideas for vegan feasts are on the table for a class at Birmingham’s Better Bites Cookery School (10 Dec, £65pp). Christmas tunes and fairy lights will lend fun, and there’ll be tips on plating up with style, and a sit-down meal at the end. Another meat-free option is the Natural Cookery School (7 Dec, £95pp) near Stroud, Gloucestershire, for A Very Vegan Christmas, learning dishes such as brussels sprout and shitake dumplings, and squash, mushroom, chestnut and kale filo wreath.
Alice in Wonderland, Oxfordshire
A new Christmas light trail at Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, features a mile-long glittering path with an aerial light show, illuminated waterfalls and trees, and vines embedded with colourful LEDs. Inside, things are just as spectacular, with the house’s lavish rooms transformed and decorated on an Alice in Wonderland theme. Back outside there’s a woodland laser garden, trails of glowing flowers and illuminated tunnels, while textiles, ceramics and handicrafts can be bagged in the Christmas market. Christmas celebrations run until 5 Jan.
• Combined ticket for trail and palace £40.50/£25.50, blenheimpalace.com
Panto with a twist, Edinburgh
Family-friendly pantos at the Scottish Storytelling Centre depart from the “oh yes it is!” norm. In the “Insta-inspired” tale of Sno Wite & the 7 Dickensians (13 and 14 Dec, 9pm) characters include a selfie-obsessed Prince Charming and biker-booted Sno Wite, while for Cindy (13 and 14 Dec, 7pm) the star plots her escape from a Poundland far far away via a TV talent show. There’s also a reworking of Jaq and the Beanstalk on 14 Dec, 3pm and 15 Dec 11.30am.
• Tickets from £9, scottishstorytellingcentre.com
Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.