Journey to the town of Clifton, Ohio, anytime during the month of December and you’re sure to encounter the region’s largest private Christmas illumination. Indeed, how could you miss it? Clifton Mill, the largest operating gristmill in America, transforms its surrounding grounds and river gorge into a winter wonderland adorned in festive lights.

Millions of lights. Legendary lights.

The mill’s owner,  Anthony Satariano Jr., has managed to turn a mere flour mill, miles off any beaten track, into an immense tourist destination that attracts 75,000 visitors each holiday season to the rural hamlet of Clifton (pop. 165), near Yellow Springs and Dayton. It actually takes six industrious individuals more than four months to string the 3.6 million bulbs for the spectacular display.
 
You should plan to be there precisely at 6 p.m. on any given evening this month, when the lights are switched on in a single moment. To witness the mill, with its 18-foot waterwheel and the surrounding snow-covered acreage, convert instantly from utter darkness into a magnificent array of light, is heart-pounding. The crowd of children present will actually utter a collective “whoosh.”

Satariano also runs a virtual Santa Claus museum next to the mill, with more than 3,000 figures of St. Nick on display — all collected over a 30-year period. Many are mechanical and clockwork figures from long-shuttered Buckeye department stores, which make for a nearly living, breathing North Pole experience. “Just like Clifton, Santa Claus is timeless,” observes the ebullient Satariano.

Outside amid the lights, model trains chug around handcrafted buildings, which are scale miniature replicas of landmark structures in the village. You'll also see a Ferris wheel, a 1950s used car lot, and a drive-in movie theater that actually screens vintage film clips. In addition to the annual Yuletide extravaganza, there’s a year-round restaurant, The Millrace, and the inevitable gift shop where the biscuit and pancake mixes are available for procurement.

A TRIP TO SANTA CLAUS

Although the town of Santa Claus, Indiana is best known for the theme park Holiday World, it’s also home to the world-class Christmas in Santa Claus festival. Little surprise, given the burg’s name and the fact that it’s criss-crossed with streets like Christmas Boulevard.

How did the town get its unique moniker? Local legends vary, but one of the most common is that this community — founded by German immigrants in the 1840s — got its name on Christmas Eve 1852, during the last town meeting of the year. Elders were hoping to find a permanent name for the town; suddenly, the wind blew the doors open and mysterious sleigh bells were heard outside. Children yelled fervently, “It’s Santa Claus!” And so a town name was born.

Begin your trip with a visit to the Christmas Craft Show, then take a tour of Santa’s Candy Castle and the Santa Claus Museum. Finally, finish off the day with a tour of the Festival of Lights in Christmas Lake Village. Are you beginning to sense a theme here? On December 8 and 9, a parade will feature ‘ol Kris Kringle himself. There are also holiday concerts and story time with, well, you know, the big guy.

This southern Indiana town is home to the only post office in the world with the Santa Claus name. A special picture postmark cancellation stamp is used, just in case you want to mail any of your holiday cards here.

It’s not the North Pole, but it’s the next best thing.

PRESENTS OF MIND

Finally, there’s plenty of gift shopping to be had in Nashville, Indiana, a gift shop mecca that always decks itself out for the festive season. More than 200 — count ‘em, 200 — boutiques and galleries feature one-of-a-kind handcrafts, artsy kitsch and gourmet food items. Ideas for stocking stuffers abound, too. The village dubs itself the Art Colony of the Midwest, and that’s not far from the truth.

Make time for a stop at Fourth Dimension Holographics, where 3-D trinkets are sold, and the Lawrence Family Glass Co., home to glass creations that are created onsite by glass-blowing artisans. The Brown County Art Gallery offers still-lifes painted by local artists, while a plethora of craft stores and antique shops line the main avenue. It’s possible, and even recommended, to park in one spot and dash in and out of the storefronts at will.