by Ian Shantz | November 2023
There’s something extra magical about the holiday season in Waterloo Region.
Maybe it’s the area’s unrivaled urban-rural mix. With three cities and four townships, visitors to the region can experience the holiday season in bustling civic centres one minute, and quaint villages the next.
Maybe it’s the variety. From shopping and lights to holiday markets and train rides, festive warmth is in abundance throughout the region, bolstered by popular annual events that regularly attract thousands of holiday goers.
Maybe it’s all the above and more, making Waterloo Region the perfect place for locals and visitors alike to get out and play – and stay.
Considering the pure volume of events happening over the coming weeks, planning a road trip and booking overnight accommodation is the best way to pack in as much merriment as possible.
After all, it’s been said that Waterloo Region during the holiday season can feel a bit like being in a snow globe. It’s that beautiful.
Here are nine hand-picked events to get wrapped up in this holiday season.
1. St. Jacobs Sparkles
Those who are looking for something straight out of a fairytale would be wise to mark this popular St. Jacobs event down in their holiday planners. For eight nights in November, the charming Woolwich Township village comes alive in celebration of the holiday season. Visits and photos with Santa Claus, traditional carollers dressed in authentic Victorian costumes, and elegant lights hanging overhead set the scene for Sparkles. Oh, and did we mention participating shops and eateries will remain open for nighttime shopping? Sparkles is pure holiday bliss. The first event happens on Nov. 16.
2. Cambridge Winterfest
Cambridge’s Winterfest has been named among the top festivals in Ontario and that won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has previously checked it out. The event kicks off with Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night, which drew more than 12,000 attendees last year. The CP Holiday Train offers excellent accessibility including parking and bleacher seating while the new and improved Winter Ice and Lights display at Preston’s Central Park will include colour changes on audio command. A new tree will be lit at 18 Tannery St. this year to provide a more central location as part of Hespeler’s Music and Lights in the Village, while the Cambridge Christmas Market returns indoors at Cambridge City Hall to offer nearly 60 local artisans, crafters and makers along with music on the fourth floor and food trucks and fire pits outside in Farmers Market Square. Winterfest has something on offer from late November through to the New Year’s Eve Party at Hespeler Arena.
3. Gift of Lights & Jingle Bell Rock at Bingemans
Bingemans is making a merry merger this holiday season, combining the Gift of Lights and immersive Jingle Bell Rock to create “twice the cheer, the glow and the wonder.” Back for a seventh season, the Gift of Lights drive-thru experience at the Kitchener entertainment complex features more than 300 animated and static light displays and light tunnels collectively sparkling more than one million lights and spanning more than two kilometres. Visitors can stand in awe of the 40-foot LED tree centrepiece and walk through 50-foot light tunnels as part of Jingle Bell Rock, featuring a synchronized dance of light. Families can visit Mrs. Claus’ kitchen and purchase cookie kits before warming up at the firepit and sipping holiday brews at Frosty’s Bar. “Each year, we aim to push the envelope of festive creativity. With the combined brilliance of Jingle Bell Rock and Gift of Lights, we promise an unparalleled experience in Waterloo Region,” said Mark Bingeman, president of Bingemans. These ticketed events start Nov. 17 and run through to Jan. 6. Walk-only nights see 50% of all ticket proceeds donated to Bingemans’ community partners.
4. Christkindl Market
Be one of the tens of thousands of visitors who come to the Christkindl Market each year. Vendors selling unique handcrafted items, live music, dance performances and more shape this four-day event that transforms the streets of downtown Kitchener into a traditional festival of Christmas dating back some 700 years. Christkindl recreates the sights, sounds, smells and spirit of Christmas festivals found across Germany. This year the Christkindl experience expands outdoors featuring a main stage with holiday entertainment and an outdoor food and beverage area. Families can bring their skates, hop aboard the Holiday Express trackless train for children on Saturday and Sunday and take part in a virtual scavenger hunt. This year’s market, based at Kitchener City Hall and Carl Zehr Square, runs Dec. 7-10.
5. Wonders of Winter
This volunteer-run festival has been bringing Waterloo Park to life over the holiday season since 1993 when citizen Bill Weiler “asked for a loan from the City of Waterloo to install an underground electrical service in the park to power the first 5,000 lights in imaginative displays.” That loan has since been repaid and today various service clubs and generous citizens volunteer to make the magic happen. This marks the festival’s 30th year. Santa will be making impromptu visits (there’s even a Santa hotline available). Also included in the free festival is a Story Night hosted by the Waterloo Public Library on Dec. 20. Beverages will be served at the Park Inn on Friday and Saturday nights and popcorn will also be available. Parking is available off Seagram Drive and in the two lots off Young Street and Central Street. The park lights up from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. each night from Nov. 25 to Jan. 1.
6. Holiday Train Rides with Waterloo Central Railway
Keep your holiday celebrations on track with Waterloo Central Railway’s holiday train rides. Santa has freed up some time in his busy schedule to host Santa’s Countryside Ride, starting from the St. Jacobs Farmers Market and heading to Elmira. Festive carols, crafts, a holiday dance party and a visit from the big guy himself highlight this hour-long daytime experience. Santa’s Christmas Caboose is the nighttime option where 2,000 lights shine bright aboard Santa’s specially decorated caboose. Visits with Saint Nick and Mrs. Claus round out the memorable night. “It’s a theatrical production on rails,” operations manager Bob Fallowfield said of the nighttime event that includes Christmas baking.
7. Holiday Sip ‘n Shop at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market
The organizers behind the seasonal events being offered under the St. Jacobs Market District banner over the past few years deserve credit for breathing new life into old staples. Events such as the Harvest Hoedown, Summer Social and Vintage Fest have done well to attract new and regular visitors to the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, and so, too, has the holiday Sip n’ Shop. Scheduled over three Friday nights beginning Nov. 17, the Sip n’ Shop is dubbed as a “memorable shopping experience like no other.” Visitors can search for that perfect gift from the vendors selling one-of-a-kind finds while savoring festive food and beverages, all under the glow of the lights at these night markets.
8. Christmas at the Castle
One of the region’s most popular mainstays, Christmas at the Castle sees the 1877 Victorian mansion in Baden decorated for the holidays. Wilmot Township’s national historic site is a year-round treasure but visiting the castle over the holidays is pure magic. The decorations are up from Nov. 15-Jan. 16, covering all four floors of the castle. There’s a full slate of events at Castle Kilbride throughout the season, including Herner’s Victorian Village, A Merry Victorian Christmas, The Nutcrackers of Castle Kilbride, and the new Sugarplum Tea and Tour.
9. Country Christmas & Campfires at Snyder’s Farm
Guests at Snyder’s Farm in Bright, Ont., will want to start by visiting the 30-foot Christmas tree for that perfect family photo. Visits with Santa in the North Pole will be a highlight. Folks can enjoy the outdoor patio and a 2,500 sq. ft. gift barn for local shopping along with a farm-fresh bakery serving holiday treats. Cut your own Christmas tree at Snyder’s with trees from four feet to six feet. Upgrade your winter experience with campfires in a private pod for you and your friends, family or corporate group, accommodating anywhere from two to 25 guests. New this year: Guests can also book an evening winter campfire with sparkling lights. Food and drink can be ordered and delivered to the fireside.
Ian Shantz is an award-winning, seasoned writer and editor based in Waterloo Region. Throughout his career in journalism spanning nearly 20 years, Ian has specialized in various storytelling, including sports, travel and breaking news reporting. He works at The Toronto Sun. Raised in the townships of Wellesley and Woolwich, Ian is forever in pursuit of a quality cup of coffee, a top-secret swimming hole, and a favourite new band.