Kennebunkport welcomes the holiday season with Christmas Prelude, a series of events that celebrate the community and Christmas. It’s impossibly adorable, and I am excited to share my hometown’s traditions with you. Oh – and if you don’t have plans for this weekend, you can join the fun.
Christmas carol sing-a-longs, hat parades, Santa arriving on a lobster boat, pancake breakfasts at the firehouse, fireworks, lobster rolls lunches, and a tree lighting in a picture-perfect town square – it sounds like an over-the-top Christmas movie. But, it’s real. This is how my hometown, Kennebunkport, Maine, ushers in the holiday season during Christmas Prelude.
Christmas Prelude, Kennebunkport’s Christmas festival, features two back-to-back weekends packed with events. Growing up it was something we looked forward to each year. Now that I’ve moved away, I can appreciate how unique Kennebunkport is. When you grow up in one of the most Christmas-y towns in America, you don’t quite comprehend that other towns don’t welcome December with such fanfare.
Christmas Prelude got its start 37 years ago when local small businesses (note: the absence of chains in Kennebunkport means that all businesses are local and small) came together to find a way to celebrate the community and the holiday season. It began as a weekend-long event that kicked off with the tree lighting, and over the years it grew to include dozens of events spreading over the first two weekends of December.
Locals make a point not to miss Prelude. Dad’s been every year, and Mom’s been 36 times. After attending 18 years in a row, I found it harder and harder to make it back after I moved away. This year I attended for the first time in 13 years, and discovered that Prelude has gotten bigger and better. I am going to do my best not to miss future Preludes.
Christmas Prelude is peak Christmas. It’s charming and idyllic, and my weekend was filled with events. Here is how my family and I celebrated Prelude:
The local wine bar, Old Vines, goes all out for Prelude, putting up a massive tent to host a series of musical performances. My parents and I attended a Prelude pre-party that featured a so-tacky-it-was-amazing dueling pianos show. The people watching was top notch.
Friday night is the official Prelude kick off, and it was the day that my sister Kelly, her husband Andrew, and our friend Jonathon arrived. On Friday evening, Dock Square, the center of Kennebunkport, fills with a mix of locals and tourists who gather for the tree lighting. The local high school choir performs carols, the crowd counts down to the moment when the tree is lit, and Prelude officially starts. The crowd assembles and disperses quickly – but the excitement lasts all weekend. Once the tree is lit many people move on to nearby restaurants, but since my parents live around the corner, we went home for a small party.
Saturday morning, Kelly woke me up early (which has a habit of doing this), so that we could go to the local firehouse for a pancake breakfast. Firemen make great pancakes. I love that the event raises money for Kennebunkport’s fire department. It’s great to give back to the community during Prelude.
Fueled up and ready to take on the day, we spent an hour working together to complete the elaborate handmade hats that I had created for that day’s hat parade. Then it was off to our favorite antique’s shop, Americana, where I resisted the urge to purchase a beautiful apothecary table. Kelly succumbed to adding a vintage icebox to her rapidly growing collection.
Saturday afternoon our crew consisting of Kelly, Andrew, Jonathon, my Mom, and Milo assembled for the hat parade. A crowd of hundreds lined the streets for a short parade through Dock Square and over the bridge into Kennebunk. I had never attended this event, but devoted a significant amount of time to creating 5 hats to represent Kennebunkport at Christmas. I made the Dock Square Christmas Tree complete with its buoys and lobster on top, the Cape Porpoise Lobster Trap Tree, Goat Island Lighthouse, Santa Arriving on a Lobster Boat, and the Kennebunkport Inn decorated for Christmas. I even made a Dog Parade costume for Kelly’s dog. It was so much fun marching in the parade – the crowd is so enthusiastic! People were hollering compliments and calling out my Mom’s name. It was so cute! The Kennebunkport Inn has asked to display the hat I made of the inn, and it will be there throughout the holiday season.
That evening we went back to Washington Hose for a lobster dinner! A crowd of mostly locals gathered for a meal of lobster and steamers. This is a popular stop for dinner before walking over to the monastery for caroling.
We made a quick stop for hot chocolate at Mornings in Paris and then walked over to the Franciscan Monastery. It is somewhat random that there is a monastery in such a small town, but it’s gorgeous. They have been hosting a Christmas carol sing-a-long since the first Prelude. A crowd of several hundred people gathers and sings carols by candlelight. Since it is a monastery, the carols are more religious in nature (think Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Little Town of Bethlehem). The event lasts about 45 minutes, and the carols are cut down to a few verses each. Participants receive candles and programs with the lyrics to the hymns. This is the most religious event of Prelude. (I’ll take this moment to explain that there is a lack of religious diversity in Maine, which is why the town is so focused on Christmas).
After caroling, we went back to my parent’s inn to warm up by the fire and have snacks. You will definitely want to go somewhere to warm up after standing in the cold, so work that into your plans.
Sunday morning Jonathon and I had brunch at Salt + Honey because I was craving their breakfast burrito.
My final event of Prelude weekend was watching Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive in a lobster boat. This event was mostly attended by families with young children, but I wanted to see it for myself. Children were adorably yelling “Merry Christmas Santa” and jumping up and down with excitement when he arrived. You can opt to just watch the boat arrival, or to follow Santa as he makes his way to the Community Center for meet and greets.
I may be biased, but I think that Kennebunkport’s Christmas Prelude is the perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit. The town was filled with joy, even though this year the town was also experiencing sorrow over the loss of President Bush.
Unlike a made-for-television Christmas movie, Christmas Prelude doesn’t feel cheesy or overdone. That’s because the events are aimed at both the local community and visitors. It doesn’t feel like a silly tourist trap because the locals are genuinely excited to participate in the events.
Here is everything you need to know to plan your trip to Christmas Prelude:
Can’t Miss Kennebunkport Christmas Prelude Events:
The Dock Square Tree Lighting – In what looks like a scene straight from Wooville, Dock Square, fills with people and excitement for the tree lighting. If you aren’t within walking distance, you need to plan to get their early – both to secure a parking spot and to get there before the roads close.
The Pancake Breakfast and/or the Lobster Supper at Washington Hose – We went to both! These events are not fancy, but the food is great and the charm and hospitality can’t be beat. The breakfast and supper are ways to experience town like a local. These events take place on the first Saturday of Prelude.
Live Music at Old Vines – I appreciate how this wine bar goes all out for Prelude. They have events almost every night during the first two weeks of December and they are packed! You can find a full itinerary of events on their website.
The Hat Parade – Locals wear festive handmade hats and costumes to parade through Dock Square. This event takes place the first Saturday of Prelude.
Christmas Carol Sing-A-Long at the Franciscan Monastery – Local monks with adorable Maine accents lead a candlelit carol sing-a-long. It may sound a little cheesy, but it’s charming, and the sight of hundreds of people gathered to sing by candlelight is magical. You will get cold standing outside for 45 minutes to an hour (you want to get there a touch early), so bundle up. If it’s an especially cold night, buy boot warmers and/or get there early to get a spot by the fire pits. This event takes place the first Saturday or Prelude.
Santa’s Arrival – This is more for the kids, but I went and loved it. Each year Santa and Mrs. Claus (our friend Cheryll) arrive by lobster boat. This year it was pouring (which is why the photos may seem a little blurry) so the crowd was smaller than usual – Mrs. Claus says that usually a crowd of up to a thousand greets them. This event takes place the first Sunday of Prelude.
The Second Tree Lighting and Fireworks – On the second Friday of Prelude the town re-lights the tree and then there is a big fireworks display.
Fire + Ice – This is one of the only ticketed events. Fire + Ice takes place at the Nonantum Resort and features hand carved ice bars and ice sculptures, bonfires, and drinks. This event is 21+ and takes place on the second Friday and Saturday of Prelude.
The Pooch Parade – Mainers love dogs, and this is their chance to show them off. This parade is filled with dogs dressed up for the holidays. This event takes place the second Sunday of Prelude.
This is only a list of the major events. There are dozens of events and you can find a full listing on the Christmas Prelude website.
Other Things to See and Do During Christmas Prelude:
See the Lobster Trap Tree in Cape Porpoise (about a 5-minute drive from Dock Square), this tree gets lit a couple hours after the Dock Square Tree and is made out of wooden lobster traps.
Shop at Farm + Table – This shop is located in a big red bar in Cape Porpoise, and has a wonderfully curated mix of kitchen items and home goods.
Have brunch at Salt + Honey – A low key spot with the best brunch in town. I love the breakfast burrito and the blueberry pancakes.
Shop at Americana – We love this antiques shop in Kennebunk, and I especially recommend it since they will ship throughout the country. They usually have a sale during Prelude and in the past we’ve purchased everything from antique mirrors to weathervanes.
Get penny candy at The Candy Man – This tiny shop has one of the most beautifully made wooden signs, and it is filled with candy. Charles loves the gummies.
Try the croissants at Mornings in Paris – Specifically the cheese and raspberry filled croissant. It’s perfection. The hot chocolate is great too.
Browse the Shops – The thing that I love about Maine is that all of the shops are locally owned. You will find things that you won’t find anywhere else – and many of the stores sell products that are made locally. My favorite shops are Daytrip Society, Dock Square Clothiers, Shoot the Moon, Home Ingredients, Minka, and Daytrip Society, Jr.
Visit H.B. Provisions – Is there anything more authentically Maine than a general store? Probably not. This is where you will find locals stopping in to get life’s essentials from coffee to wine. It’s a store, it’s a meeting place, and it’s a part of local life.
Grab a pint at Pilot House – This is a local hangout with surprisingly good food. They put up a tent for Prelude and often have local bands perform. The Lower Village People is a band that is definitely worth watching.
Watch the sunset at from the Cape Porpoise Pier and get dinner at The Ramp – Cape Porpoise Pier is the prettiest place to watch the sunset. Take in the view of the row boats, lobster boats, and Goat Island Lighthouse under the pink sky, and then grab a meal at The Ramp.
Have a cocktail and play Scrabble at Batson River – The newest business in Kennebunkport opened last week. Batson River is a cocktail bar with Maine meets Ralph Lauren style. The gin and tonic is fantastic, and the upstairs lounge feels like a friend’s home. If you are lucky the giant Scrabble board on the wall will be available.
What to Know about Christmas Prelude:
Christmas Prelude takes place during the first two weeks of December. If the first weekend of December falls on December 1st and 2nd, the Friday night tree lighting falls on November 30th.
There are a few road closures that take place during Prelude. Traffic into Dock Square is closed for the tree lighting, hat parade, pooch parade, Santa’s arrival, and fireworks.
They light the tree twice, the first tree lighting is on the first Friday night, and then the town lights the tree again on the Friday of the second weekend of Christmas Prelude.
I would recommend making dinner reservations if you want to dine in Kennebunkport during Prelude, since town is so busy and restaurants are packed.
Hotels usually book up in advance for Prelude, so plan ahead. My parents have a small inn just outside Dock Square; you can learn more here.
The events are family friendly with the exception of events at the bars.
Many of the events take place outside, and they take place rain, snow, sleet, or shine. You will want to pack warm boots and a waterproof parka.
While there are some events that take place during the week between the two weekends of Christmas Prelude, there isn’t too much happening then. Most visitors go to one of the two weekends of Prelude, I wouldn’t recommend staying in town for the full 10 days.
What to Know about Kennebunkport:
Kennebunkport is small, which means that if you stay near Dock Square you can walk everywhere.
Walking is the preferred mode of transportation because there isn’t much parking, and there are some road closures during Prelude.
It’s pronounced Kenny-bunk-port. It’s not Ken-a-bunk-port. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to a local when it’s mispronounced.
To get to Kennebunkport, you can fly into Boston, Manchester, or Portland. The Portland Jetport is just about 40 minutes from Kennebunkport, and you could take an uber to Kennebunkport and skip renting a car. From Boston, you can rent a car or take the Amtrak Downeaster to Wells (15 minutes from Kennebunkport). From Manchester you can rent a car and drive. Personally, I recommend flying into Portland – United recently added more flights and the prices have dropped significantly.
And a little local geography. The bridge separates Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. Dock Square side of the bridge is Kennebunkport, and the Clam Shack side is Kennebunk. The section of Kennebunk closest to the bridge is called Lower Village. Most Prelude events take place in Kennebunkport and Lower Village. Cape Porpoise is a village within Kennebunkport, and home to the Lobster Trap Tree, and the pier where you can view the lighthouse. You can easily walk from Lower Village to Kennebunkport, but you would want to drive to Cape Porpoise.
There aren’t any taxis in town, but you may have luck with uber. If you want to go to places like Cape Porpoise, it would be best to rent a car. If you are not renting a car (if you are going to stay in Lower Village and Dock Square you won’t need one) you may want to pre-arrange transportation out of Kennebunkport for your departure in case you can’t get an uber on the busiest weekend of the year.
I can’t write this post without mentioning that President George H.W. Bush passed away the night of the tree lighting. He was our little town’s most famous resident and one of the town’s favorite neighbors. He made Kennebunkport the “summer White House” and this brought the town attention that let it thrive. He wasn’t just the President; he was the friendly guy who would ride over on a jet ski to simply say hello. He loved Kennebunkport just as much as the town loved him, and George and Barbara Bush will be greatly missed.