At first, you might notice a subtle wreath dressed in cranberries or sea stars adorning a front door, then, as the holiday season creeps nearer, it happens almost overnight: a bloom of twinkling lights emerges, sparkling like jewels from inviting storefronts and festive abodes.

From Thanksgiving to First Night, the towns of the Cape celebrate the season in seaside style. As you browse local shops or take time out for a fireside toast, prepare for plenty of surprises. Perhaps you’ll get a glimpse of Santa sweeping into the harbor by boat or the spectacle of giants lighting up the nighttime streets, or seize the opportunity to hop the next train to the North Pole.

This is Christmas on Cape Cod.

Christmas trees for sale at the Sagamore Inn are one of the first signs of the holidays in Bourne. Score the perfect evergreen (and some of the restaurant’s yummy veal parmigiana) to start your shopping on a high note. Need a thoughtful gift for someone with an acute case of wanderlust? The clean Japanese lines of a serving bowl or intricate slip-trailing on an East Indian-inspired vase at Barn Pottery will delight world and armchair travelers. Call it an early day, and catch pre-dinner cocktails at Sunset Grille at the Brookside Club. For the record: It’s not your imagination; that distant whistle really is the Train to Christmas Town out of Buzzards Bay, courtesy of the Cape Cod Central Railroad.

No surprise that the birthplace of “America the Beautiful” is picture perfect during the holidays. The annual Falmouth Holidays by the Sea is known for holiday tours of Nobska Lighthouse, sidewalk carolers, and the bustle of the Christmas parade winding along Main Street. Let the quintessential festivities inspire merry gift-giving with a handcrafted pendant from Hannoush Jewelers' Cape Cod Moments collection, or a slip-glazed stoneware bread bowl from Quissett Studio Pottery. Take time out to bask in the glow of Highfield Hall all dressed up for the holidays, or warm up over apple-cider braised brisket sliders at Bear in Boots Gastro-Pub.

If your tradition is to exchange handmade gifts at the holidays, why not leave it up to the professionals? During the 19th century, onion lanterns were a fixture in homes; today, Sandwich Lantern carries on the tradition and handcrafts these classic colonial lights. Compass rose sailor’s valentine pendants from Robert E. Guertin Jeweler are yet another nod to local history. To celebrate the holidays, the Cape’s oldest town hosts the Holly Days, a month-long event that lights up evenings in the village, from Gardens Aglow at Heritage Museums & Gardens and the Sandwich Glass Museum’s Glassblowers’ Christmas to the annual lighting of the Littlest Christmas Tree on Shawme Pond. At dinner, keep your spirits soaring beneath the choir loft at Belfry Inn and Bistro, located within a restored 1901 church, or alongside the convivial crowd at Marshland Restaurant. Plan a return visit for First Night Sandwich, which always has a few surprises in store.

The modern bustle of one-stop shopping at Mashpee Commons takes an old-fashioned turn at the holidays, with horse-drawn carriages, sidewalk carolers and twinkling trees straight from a storybook. Fuel up at Cape Cod Coffee, then begin your treasure hunt, which may include lobster-printed pajamas from Cape Kids, a gift certificate for paddling lessons from MOCEAN, or a nautically-inspired handmade tote from Sea Bags. Finish just in time for coal-baked pizza at Estia or French fare at Bleu. And, don’t forget to mark your calendar for the annual Mashpee Christmas Parade, which starts with a warm cup of cocoa at the public library.

If you’re the type of shopper who finds it hard not to stock up on goods for yourself, you’ll need extra willpower at Puritan Cape Cod, featuring trendy fashions for men and women, including preppy Vineyard Vines apparel. At Cape Cod Chocolatier, handcrafted treats from the candy kitchen are almost too good to give away. cranberry syrup or a beach-sand bracelet from Mrs. Mitchell's Gifts are two picks for sweethearts. Take a keepsake photo with Santa while checking several items off your holiday shopping list at Cape Cod Mall, home to nearly 100 shops and eateries. Never skip dinner after a long day of shopping, whether it’s live music at Roadhouse Café, or slow-cooked meats carved tableside at Brazilian Grill If it’s hard to choose, don’t fret; you’ll need to make return trips for the must-see Hyannis Village Christmas Stroll, Harbor Lighting and Boat Parade, as well as the magical Enchanted Village at the Cape Codder Resort and Spa.

The seashell-studded wreaths you’ve been envying on holiday house tours can be found among the coastal home accents at Harvest of Barnstable. Candlelit inns along Old King’s Highway set the backdrop for holiday festivities in town, culminating in the Yarmouth Port Village Stroll, an afternoon of cider, chowder, and merriment that ends with a tree lighting on the Village Green. Following in the footsteps of sea captains may inspire you to venture to far-off places, so head to romantic Sicily for an intimate dinner at Gerardi’s Café.

After stocking up on a milk chocolate hairdresser’s kit, classic peanut brittle and artisan truffles from Stage Stop Candy, indulge on a grander scale with uniquely designed high-karat gold, platinum or silver jewelry by local goldsmith Ross Coppelman. You’ll be just down the road from two favorite Cape restaurants; at The Pheasant, the antique post-and-beam barn is picture-perfect for fireside fine dining, while classic cuisine at inviting Scargo Café is topped off by locally famous grape nut custard. Something else to savor: old Cape Cod, as you settle into a horse-drawn carriage at the annual Dennis Christmas Stroll.

There’s a good chance the giant sling chair outside Cape Cod Beach Chair will be decorated for the holidays; jump on for a photo-op before heading inside to check out the chairs of your dreams. Around the corner, head down Route 137 to get decked out for the holidays at Consigning Women—even better than raiding the closet of your chicest friend. For dinner, head to 400 East for classic surf, turf and cocktails. Look for the annual Harwich Port Stroll, where Santa makes his arrival by fire truck.

If ever a seaside town were to be made into a snow globe, quaint Chatham—with its Christmas Stroll and First Night celebrations—surely would be the one. In between the candy-cane-making, carriage rides, hot cider, and attending Santa’s celebrity appearance at the fish pier, shop for fail-safe gifts for the gourmand at Gustare Oils and Vinegars or browse the selection of beautifully handcrafted lanterns and sconces at Cape Cod Lanterns. You will need a snack: enjoy a hearty burrito from The Corner Store or share a sampling of small plates at Chatham Wine Bar.

The classic sea captains’ town turns on the charm during Brewster for the Holidays, with a weekend of gallery strolls and a band concert with an illumination ceremony at Drummer Boy Park. Keep your hands toasty with one of the small-batch brews from Snowy Owl Coffee Roasters (don’t forget to buy some beans for host gifts and stockings), then peruse the art gallery at Red River Frame Shop for a paper-quilted or metal sea critter to take home. You may need time to think your holiday shopping over; start with lobster bisque at the Brewster Fish House or old-fashioned cocktails at cozy Bayzo’s Pub piano bar.

Before Santa arrives by boat, Mrs. Claus serves a pancake breakfast in Orleans, just one of the town’s annual Seaside Christmas events that puts a fun spin on tradition. There is also a Santa Stampede 5K and a winter wonderland on the Village Green. A shopping detour might take you to see the model holiday trains at Snow’s Home and Garden or to browse Argonauta Jewelry Designs for handcrafted jewelry, with designs ranging from fun & funky to classic & simple. Enjoy dinner with a waterfront view of sparkling lights on Town Cove at Orleans Waterfront Inn.

Morning musts in Eastham: a walk along the marsh trail at Fort Hill and breakfast at the Hole in One. Among the treasures you’ll find on a shopping adventure: copper foil-stained glass art from Lucy J. Glass and a gift basket of Beanstock Coffee Roasters, which are pure Eastham—as is the Eastham Holiday Festival, a jam-packed day of family crafting, activities and fun at the landmark Gift Barn.

It takes serious charm to provide a backdrop to the Cape Cod National Seashore, and Wellfleet has it in spades, starting with two restaurants that serve as a metaphor for the town’s eclecticism: Cozy up at the rambling Bookstore & Restaurant for lunchtime views of Mayo Beach, or discover authentic French dining (and a patisserie) at PB Boulangerie. The Wellfleet Holiday Tree Lighting & Sing-Along (December 8) includes plenty of holiday cheer; make sure your shopping jaunt also takes you to The Jewelry Studio, where handcrafted jewelry, from cufflinks to bracelets, pays homage to the town’s famous Wellfleet oysters.

Snow-swept beaches will steal the show in Truro, but keep an eye out for hidden gems—such as fused glass jewelry or a found-glass lampshade at Donna Mahan Studios. Later, bundle up for a beach walk and grab a breakfast or lunch “rollwich” to-go from The Box Lunch, or stay in town for dinner to discover yet another hidden gem: Blackfish restaurant, tucked inside a former blacksmith shop, serves refined seafood.

Your drive all the way out to Provincetown will be worth it, even if you never make it past the “floating” dining room at Fanizzi’s Restaurant by the Sea, home to one of the greatest views in town. The annual Holly Folly Days are suitably naughty and nice, with a Speedo run through town and carols by the Gay Men’s Chorus, but the town also takes holiday traditions seriously: the beautiful Lighting of the Pilgrim Monument on the eve before Thanksgiving is an annual tribute to the Pilgrims’ first landing, and the monument will stay illuminated into the New Year. Other things to be taken seriously in Provincetown: shopping—whether stocking-stuffer gadgets and gear at Marine Specialties or a wish-list, 8-foot whale tail painting from TJ Walton Gallery—and dining. Start with a cocktail at The Pointe Restaurant overlooking Pilgrim Monument and toast the magical season. The holiday revelry goes out with a bang at First Light Provincetown, a multi-day New Year’s extravaganza that includes fireworks, craft fairs, dance parties, live entertainment and if you dare, the Polar Bear Plunge. 

For a complete list of Christmas on Cape Cod events and vacation packages, visit!