Kennebunkport’s Christmas Prelude celebration feels like you’re walking inside a snow globe. This nearly two-week event takes over in early December with pageantry and purpose.
The 2023 holiday season marks the 42nd year for this event hosted by the local business association as a way to thank the community and visitors year-round.
We’d call it idyllic – it is to a large extent – but it’s the novelty in the festivities that really make it stand out from other holiday coastal celebrations on the Maine coastline.
Even without all the accolades from HGTV, among other national media outlets, this is an event that every man, woman, child, and dog (yes, activities for dogs!) should put on their holiday wish list.
What is Christmas Prelude in Kennebunkport?
The Christmas Prelude celebration has come a long way from a one-night tree lighting in 1982. It now runs for 12 days, embracing the early part of December and is hosted by the Kennebunkport Business Association.
Christmas Prelude now spans across the Kennebunks, to Arundel, Cape Porpoise, and Kennebunk, in addition to Kennebunkport. One of the reasons we adore the event so much is that visitors explore beyond the boundaries of Dock Square and the beaches.
While the focus is to get people in the holiday spirit, the event also celebrates the lobster, fishing, and shipbuilding industries that kept this port town prosperous long before a president decided to summer here.
Even if you can only visit for one of the weekends or stop by for a day trip, Christmas Prelude has a creative daily schedule that suits all types of interests.
Getting To and Around Christmas Prelude
Kennebunkport is centrally located on the southern Maine coastline, 26 miles south of Portland International Jetport and 84 miles north of Boston Logan International.
TRAVEL TIP: If you’re looking to maximize the holiday spirit, flying into Boston and driving to Kennebunkport will also take you through the Vintage Christmas celebration in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (and tax-free shopping), plus by the Kittery outlets on your way to Christmas Prelude.
Anyone who has been to Kennebunkport might be scrooged by the idea of trying to find parking in the winter. Yet another reason to jingle your bells to Christmas Prelude is the trolly and shuttle services.
A mix of paid and free parking is designated at shuttle stops. The shuttles are available on the weekends, which are always the busiest times. If you want to avoid crowds, come during the weekdays without missing awesome activities.
To help plan your arrival and departure times if you do want to find a parking spot, the activities start daily at 9 a.m. and the stores close around 8 p.m. Each restaurant will have its own hours, but some bars could be open until midnight.
Where to Stay for Christmas Prelude
Kennebunkport offers some of the most charming, elegant, and luxurious accommodations you’ll find on the Maine coastline. The places to stay in Kennebunkport for Christmas Prelude range from renovated ship captains’ homes to quaint bed and breakfasts to seaside experiences.
TRAVEL TIP: You can parlay Christmas Prelude into a visit to Ogunquit’s Christmas by the Sea celebration held the second weekend in December.
Christmas Prelude Traditions
Several signature events of the Christmas Prelude in Kennebunkport have become hallmarks of the event. Exploring activities across 12 days can feel overwhelming, but the smart elves at Christmas Prelude have considered that as well.
When you visit the website, you can create an account and organize your top choices through the “Add to My Prelude” feature.
Here are some of the most popular events that happen once during the festivities.
The Hat Parade sort of planned itself, as the story goes. Nearly 20 years ago, organizers realized that the big crowds were prompting some families to make themed hats so they could spot each other in the masses.
From there the idea of a Hat Parade was born with some of the most creative headtops you’ve ever seen. What are you doing just standing there? Join in the parade for free and show off your hat!
Maine is already so dog-friendly that it’s no surprise the Pooch Parade brings dogs and owners from far and “away.” Pets are dressed up in creative holiday costumes, hoping to win the top dog prizes.
DOG DAYS: Most of the beaches in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport are dog-friendly his time of year, too, and you’ll find several dog-friendly hotels in the region.
Tree Lighting Ceremony
Visitors get two tree lighting ceremonies during Christmas Prelude in Kennebunkport. One is a traditional tree at Dock Square, followed by fireworks.
The other is at Cape Porpoise, where a lobster trap tree is lit. These usually happen on the same day, and there’s plenty of time after the fireworks to get to Cape Porpoise.
Caroling at Franciscan Monastery
Did you know Kennebunk was home to St. Anthony’s Monastery? In what is one of the most elegant activities, the story of Jesus is told, mixed with Christmas classics by candlelight.
In Kennebunkport, even Santa Claus himself arrives in style! Ditching his traditional sleigh, Old Saint Nick cruises into town aboard a lobster boat with lobster elves by his side. (You’ll see a lot of lobster elves during Christmas Prelude.)
Several events are planned with Mrs. Claus throughout Christmas Prelude, but one includes the reindeer at Kennebunk Outfitters.
One of the most popular activities for children during Christmas Prelude is Santa reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
The event is held at the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust (KCT) inside a rustic lodge. Mrs. Claus and elves (yep, lobster elves, too!) help kids make gingerbread houses and holiday crafts. Be sure to bring your holiday wish list to share with Santa.
MORE: KCT also offers an Illuminated Labyrinth at Emmons Preserve, where solar-powered luminaries light up the quiet trails away from the crowds.
Prelude Family Street Festival
A festival within a festival, Dock Square and Kennebunk’s Lower Village are closed to traffic for this big event. Many musical performances are scheduled while all the seasonal businesses open for the big event, serving famous lobster rolls, chowder, and fried dough.
Stroll through the shops while mixing with street performances or watching an ice carving demonstration.
Fire & Ice
This adults-only event at the Nontatum Resort mixes the best of holiday season luxury with ice sculpture, bonfires, and fine dining. The Fire & Ice Festival is always held the last weekend of Christmas Prelude, and tickets go fast.
Most of this event is outdoors, so dress in warm layers.
Vinegar Hill Music Theatre
The 2023 winter season marks the first Spirit of Prelude concert at this Arundel venue, with the hopes it will become an annual event. Check the schedule for show times and events.
Ongoing Christmas Prelude Activities
Recurring events and activities are sprinkled throughout the nearly two weeks of Christmas Prelude, like historic tours, S’mores buffets, bonfires, and candlelight tours. Be sure to make a stop at the hot chocolate bar at Mornings in Paris cafe.
The Shops at Morning Walk in Kennebunk transition to a gingerbread village with thousands of lights and each shop offering unique samples.
Another holiday hotspot is found at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Arundel. The museum celebrates electric railways, but during Christmas Prelude, the trolley turns into a holiday treat, giving rides through the woods with craft activities and tours inside.
This event is held each weekend of Christmas Prelude.
The lobster elves tell us Santa loves this event and will be there for photos and wish lists.
You can also explore the craft fair that spans the length of the festival, hosted by Maine Women in the Arts. More than 60 vendors are set up with unique gifts, treats, and trinkets to fit everyone on your holiday gift list.
Dining During Christmas Prelude
Not only do the restaurants open across the Kennebunks for Christmas Prelude, but they also each have special hours, entrees, and drinks for the event.
Make reservations when you can, but never let a long line deter you. Kennebunkport knows how to make a line move quickly, and you’ll be entertained while you wait.
How to Dress for Christmas Prelude
With so many activities outdoors, you’ll want to layer up for the festivities. Heat lamps and bonfires are available throughout the landscape, but there’s no getting around the cold weather in Maine when December arrives.
On average, highs rarely get above 40 degrees and lows are usually below freezing in the 20s. By mid-December, Kennebunkport can get up to a foot of snow.
It would take a rather large blizzard to cancel Christmas Prelude. Like most holiday events in Maine, the winter weather adds to the holiday spirit.
Make the Most of the Holidays in Maine
Maine truly brings the holiday spirit throughout every community, and Christmas Prelude in Kennebunkport is one of the signature statewide events. There’s fun for visitors of all ages and it’s a fun and festive way to get into the holiday spirit.
Whether visitors are in town for a single day or an extended stay, Kennebunkport offers a wealth of winter activities and nearby cities offer lots to do too!
Freeport is home to L.L. Bean’s flagship store and an outlet store collection. The Sparkle Celebration in Freeport overlaps with the Christmas Prelude, so you could choose to split your time between the two events. Freeport and Kennebunkport are less than one hour by car.
It’s also worth a drive down to York for the Nubble Lighthouse decked out in holiday lights.
No matter where you go, there’s plenty to do to get into the holiday spirit in Southern Maine.