My hometown welcomes the holiday season with Kennebunkport Christmas Prelude, a 10-day event in early December celebrating the community and Christmas. It’s impossibly adorable, and I am excited to share these traditions with you. Prelude is the perfect way to welcome the Christmas season – it’s why Kennebunkport is on lists of the best places to celebrate Christmas.
Complete Christmas Prelude Guide:
This guide has been updated for 2023 – visit the official website for up-to-date information on events.
What is Christmas Prelude?
Kennebunkport Christmas Prelude is an annual event featuring 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 a world-famous Christmas town, you don’t quite comprehend that other towns don’t welcome December with such fanfare.
Christmas Prelude got its start in 1982 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 in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square, and over the years, it grew into an elaborate holiday celebration with dozens of events spreading over the first two weekends of December.
I describe Kennebunkport’s annual Christmas Prelude as a Hallmark movie brought to life.
What events are included in Kennebunkport’s Christmas Prelude celebration?
Events include carol sing-a-longs, hat parades, Santa Claus arriving on a lobster boat, fireworks, and a tree lighting in a picture-perfect town square – it sounds like a scene from a Christmas movie. But, it’s real.
The official schedule is so packed that it can be overwhelming. The can’t miss events are labeled as Christmas Prelude Signature Events. These events include tree lighting ceremonies, parades, appearances from Santa and Mrs. Claus, fireworks, caroling, and a street festival. Signature events fall on Friday evenings and the weekends.
In addition to the signature events, there are several holiday craft fairs, craft-making events, historic house tours, concerts, boat rides, and additional events. You will want to check the schedule for dates and timing and see if you need to purchase tickets in advance.
Between events, you can go on a trolley ride, browse the art galleries, go Christmas shopping, and visit the artisan gingerbread bakers shop. These are activities that you can do at any time.
There are some mid-week events, but if you are going to travel to Kennebunkport for Prelude, you will want to be there for a weekend, too.
Which Prelude weekend is better?
This is the great debate! Locals go to both! That isn’t realistic for most visitors. My Mom says that she loves the second weekend since a fireworks display and a party with live music follow that weekend’s tree lighting. I am a purist and I always go the first weekend. Both are great! Pick what fits best with your schedule.
Events not taking place in 2023
The events at Washington Hose Company are not happening in 2023. This includes the pancake breakfast and the lobster supper.
Kennebunkport Christmas Prelude Signature Events:
These are the can’t miss events.
Dock Square Christmas Tree Lightings
Several Christmas tree lightings take place during Christmas Prelude. The first is the Dock Square Tree Lighting Ceremony on the first Friday in December. At this tree lighting, Kennebunk High School Chamber Choir performs carols and the crowd counts down to the moment when the Christmas tree decorated with lobsters and buoys is lit. Locals view this as the official Prelude kickoff. The crowd assembles and disperses quickly – but the excitement lasts all weekend. Once the tree is lit, many people move on to nearby restaurants and bars. 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.
On the second Friday of December, the Dock Square Christmas Tree’s lights are turned off, and the tree is re-lit at a second tree lighting to kick off the final weekend of Prelude. Yes, it is a little silly that the tree is re-lit, but it’s an easy way to let more people enjoy the magic of Prelude! After the tree is re-lit, stay for the fireworks.
Cape Porpoise Lobster Trap Tree Lighting
The fishing village of Cape Porpoise, which is a very short drive 6-minute from Dock Square, lights its tree made out of stacked lobster traps about 45 minutes after the Dock Square Tree Lighting.
Chances to See Santa and Mrs. Claus
These events are geared toward young children and families.
Santa’s Lobster Boat Arrival
Did you know that Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their lobster elves arrive via lobster boat? There are two parts to this event. First, the lobster boat travels up the Kennebunk River to the Mathew Lanigan Bridge (the bridge beside Dock Square that separates Kennebunk and Kennebunkport). Then, the boat travels to the Nonantum Resort where Santa and Mrs. Clause have a meet and greet and take photos with kids. If you want to wave to Santa on this boat ride, ideal viewing spots are the Mathew Lanigan Bridge and the Boathouse restaurant patio. These events take place on the first Sunday of Prelude.
Reindeer and Mrs. Claus at Kennebunk Outfitters
This event featuring appearances from live reindeer and Mrs. Claus, live music, and fireside hot cocoa takes place on both Saturdays of Prelude.
Santa’s Fire Engine Arrival
On the second Sunday of Prelude, Santa arrives at Cape Porpoise Kitchen on a fire engine to meet and take photos with children.
The Hat Parade
This very short parade on the first Saturday of Prelude is so much fun – and anyone can participate! A Patriot Fife and drummers lead a parade of people in hats and costumes through Dock Square and over the Mathew Lanigan Bridge. If you want to be in the parade, join the group in the parking lot behind Alisson’s Restaurant by 2:45. This event takes place rain or shine. Hats range from simple and store-bought to elaborate handmade hats and full costumes. In 2018 I spent a week creating five handmade hats representing Kennebunkport landmarks so my family could be in the parade – it was a blast. If you want to make a hat, you can check out the Holiday Hat Making Workshop at River Tree Arts.
Christmas Carol Sing-a-long at the Franciscan Monastery
On the first Saturday night of Kennebunkport’s Prelude, hundreds of people gather outside on the grounds of the monastery, and 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. 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).
This is one of most popular events of the weekend. Based on personal experience, it can be very cold at this event. There are some fire pits where you can warm yourself, and I recommend stopping at Morning in Paris for some hot chocolate to bring with you to help you stay warm. Pro-tip: candles are distributed to provide the light necessary to read the programs with the words to the songs, but the wind tends to blow the candles out. Bring a paper cup with a hole in the bottom to help protect your candle’s flame from blowing out. *This event is free, but please donate to the monastery.
Family Street Festival
The street festival coincides with the second Dock Square Tree Lighting on the second Friday of Prelude. Many businesses in Lower Village Kennebunk and downtown Kennebunkport participate. Start at Maine Art Hill in Kennebunk for the Showtime Steve human variety show, and then continue walking to Dock Square, where you will see an ice carving demo, live music, and caroling. *Note that traffic to Dock Square is closed during this time.
A big fireworks display takes place after the tree lighting and Family Street Festival on the second Friday of Prelude. It is viewable from the Mathew Lanigan Bridge.
Fire & Ice
A festive party at the Nontantum Resort featuring live music, holiday cocktails, food, ice sculptures, and fire pits. This ticketed event takes place on the second Friday and the second Saturday nights of Prelude. You do need purchase tickets in advance and they do tend to sell out.
The Pooch Parade
This parade on the second Sunday of Prelude follows a slightly different route from the Hat Parade. It starts at Consolidated School, goes through Dock Square, and ends on Ocean Avenue. Costumed dogs and their humans are invited to join the parade. Just meet at Consolidated School by 10:45am.
Additional Prelude Event Recommendations
There are dozens of events in addition to the signature events; these are just my personal recommendations.
Historic Walking Tours
Guided walking tours departing from White Columns focus on the town’s historic homes and rich history.
Candlelight Mansion Tours of White Columns (formerly called the Nott House)
Tour this beautiful historic mansion built in 1853 while it is decorated for the holidays.
The local wine bar, Old Vines, usually goes all out for Prelude. Check their website for event info.
Artisan Gingerbread Bakers Shop
Visit the shops on Morning Walk to see an exhibit of beautiful and detailed gingerbread houses.
Many holiday crafts fairs take place during Prelude. A few include the Atlantic Hall Prelude Fair, the Artisan Craft Fair at Coffee Roasters of the Kennebunks, the Cape Porpoise Christmas Fair, the Holiday Craft Fair at Consolidated School, the Community House Fine Crafts Fair, the Maine Women in the Arts Prelude Fine Art & Craft Fair, and the Merry Makers Market at Maine Art Hill.
Cocktails at Batson River
Batson River, which sits up on a hill in Lower Village, is the perfect place for a festival cocktail.
The Seashore Trolley Museum is a family-friendly museum that is offering 25-minute trolley rides on heated antique trolleys with holiday decorations. Santa will be at the museum, too. The museum is an easy drive from Dock Square; purchase tickets for your trolley ride in advance.
Prelude Boat Rides
Lobster Boat rides depart from both the Pilot House and the Nonantum Resort. The boat stops at each location every 30 minutes, and your pass is good all day, so you can ride as much as you want. No reservations are needed or accepted; just show up at the dock.
Where to Eat during Kennebunkport’s Christmas Prelude
I cannot stress this enough: Prelude is one of most popular times of year to visit Kennebunkport. The town is packed, and the restaurants are packed. You will want to make reservations in advance or plan to attend one of the food-focused Prelude events like the Prelude Kickoff Dinner, Breakfast with Santa, the Chili/Chowder Luncheon, or Fire & Ice.
Mornings in Paris
Located just over the bridge in Kennebunk, this is the best place for a quick bite. You can either grab a pastry and coffee at the main building, or walk down the hill to the left of Morning and Paris to get to their creperie. They offer some grab and go lunch options as well.
A charming French bistro located in Dock Square.
You will need to take a quick drive to Kennebunk to dine at this lovely Italian restaurant. They serve both lunch and dinner on the weekends of Prelude.
A casual restaurant located at the 5 diamond White Barn Inn, it is very popular so make a reservation.
Located in Lower Village, this family-owned Thai restaurant is very good. They do have seafood dishes available.
We love the food at the wine bar, but heads up that the scene here can be a bit rowdy during Prelude.
A classic American restaurant with plenty of seafood on the menu right in Dock Square.
The Clam Shack
This world-famous award-winning lobster roll shack serves up lobster rolls and chowder on the weekends of Prelude.
A casual family-friendly American restaurant known for menu items like their lobster roll and burger.
Pilot House Restaurant
A local watering hole with pub food.
Talula’s Prelude Soup Shack
Talula’s in Lower Village Kennebunk is serving up scratch-made winter soups in bread bowls during Prelude.
Best Places to Shop in Kennebunkport
The thing that I love about Kennebunkport 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. These are my favorite shops in Kennebunkport, Cape Porpoise, and Lower Village.
A shop selling a mix of books, games, clothing, and other gifts.
The most incredible shop with children’s books, clothing, and toys. This is my favorite place to shop for my toddler.
Pop Up Market at Captain Lord Mansion
A stunning pop up holiday shop at the Captain Lord Mansion has a selection of holiday gifts, clothing, and decor. It’s so pretty that you need to see it.
Local Color nails it when it comes to Christmas Prelude Merch – it’s practical and classy. They have tee shirts, plates, platters, ornaments, pillows, and more items with Prelude themes.
A shop in Lower Village with a well-curated selection of home decor items, gifts, books, and clothing.
Farm + Table
This shop is located in a big red bar in Cape Porpoise, and has a wonderful mix of kitchen items and home goods.
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.
The Candy Man
This tiny penny shop has one of the most beautifully made wooden signs, and it is filled with candy. Charles loves the gummies.
This is the only shop that isn’t locally owned but is the clothing store with the best selection of outerwear and essentials.
What to Know about Kennebunkport 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 on Western Avenue 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 lunch and 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. The hotels in the Kennebunkport Captains Collection are all freshly renovated and ideally located.
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. Be prepared for cold weather, 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. Or, you could go to Portland midweek.
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.
How to Get to Kennebunkport’s Christmas Prelude
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 ride share 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. I recommend flying into Portland.
Once in Kennebunkport, most Prelude events take place within walking distance from Dock Square, which is the downtown.
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 Lyft – which seems more popular than Uber in the area. 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 a Lyft or Uber on the busiest weekend of the year.
Kennebunkport Christmas Prelude is peak Christmas. It’s charming, idyllic, and filled with events. If you go, I hope you love it as much as I do.