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 now through 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.

Visit the Sagamore Inn for 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? Pick up a framed print from Bobby Baker Gallery, featuring works inspired by the photographer's love of seaside life on Cape Cod. 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. For the record: It’s not your imagination; that distant whistle really is the Polar Express 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 Falmouth Holidays by the Sea (December 1-3) is known for sidewalk carolers, the Jingle Jog 5k, the lighting of the Village Green, and the bustle of the Christmas parade (Sunday, December 3) winding along Main Street. Let the quintessential festivities inspire merry gift-giving with trendy apparel from The Black Dog, or a hand-crafted porcelain bowl from Woods Hole Handworks. Take time out to bask in the glow of Highfield Hall all dressed up for the holidays, or warm up over seafood pot pie at the Quarterdeck Restaurant on Main Street.

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 keeps things festive with the illuminated Giants sculptures along Route 6A and the Sandwich Glass Museum’s Glassblowers’ Christmas. At dinner, keep your spirits soaring as you dine fireside with a cocktail at Dan'l Webster Inn & Spa.

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 a bracelet from Sachs Jewelers or a nautically-inspired handmade tote from Sea Bags. Finish just in time for coal-baked pizza at Estia, Italian cuisine at Siena or pub-style classics at Bobby Byrne's Pub.  And, don’t forget to mark your calendar for the illuminated evening Mashpee Christmas Parade (Saturday, December 10), 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 stylish fashions for men and women, including preppy Vineyard Vines apparel. At Kandy Korner and 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 Italian entrees by the fire at Alberto's, or slow-cooked meats carved tableside at Brazilian Grill. Don't miss the Hyannis Village Holiday Stroll and Boat Parade and the holiday edition of Love Local Fest (both on Saturday, December 2).

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 (Sunday, December 3), an afternoon of holiday treats, trolley rides, caroling and merriment that ends with a tree lighting on the Village Green. When you're done, head to Captain Parker's Pub for a hearty bowl of their award-winning chowder.

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 enjoy the festive season at the annual Dennis Village Stroll off 6A (Sunday, December 10).

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.  For dinner, head to The Mad Minnow Bar + Kitchen for coastal cuisine incorporating fresh, local ingredients. Look for the annual Christmas in Harwich (December 1-3), where Santa makes his arrival by fire truck during the Friday evening stroll. And the Wequassett Resort & Golf Club will sweeten the holiday season on Sunday, December 3, when it plays host to the inaugural Cape Cod Annual Holiday Baking Classic, hosted by Food Network personality and acclaimed chef Carla Hall.

If ever a seaside town were to be made into a snow globe, quaint Chatham—with its Christmas Stroll (December 8-10) 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 (December 1-3), a festive celebration including carol singing at Drummer Boy Park Friday, Breakfast with Santa at Ocean Edge Resort & Golf Club on Saturday, and a family-friendly holiday party on Sunday at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. 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 Struna Galleries for a custom engraving or coastal watercolor painting to take home. You may need time to think your holiday shopping over; start with appetizers and old-fashioned cocktails at cozy Bayzo’s Pub.

December in Orleans brings the town's annual Holiday Decorating Contest, as local businesses deck the halls with lights and ornaments (vote for your favorites at participating retailers). Other festivities include the Santa Stampede 5K (December 2) 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 a cozy dinner afterwards at Barley Neck Inn or Rock Harbor Grill.

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.

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 9) includes plenty of holiday cheer; make sure your shopping jaunt also takes you to The Frying Pan Gallery,  featuring the work of owner Steve Swain and 20+ local artists; painters, jewelers, ceramicists, photographers and glass artists.

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 (December 1-3) 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 Pilgrim Monument stays illuminated through New Year's an annual tribute to the Pilgrims’ first landing, and the lit Lobster Pot Tree in Lopes Square is a sight to behold. 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 the 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. 

Find a complete list of Christmas on Cape Cod events here!d