Sevier County is no place to be broke during the holidays.
The heavy commercialization of Christmas is a steam-roller of bright lights, holiday style, consumption and celebration all wrapped into one giant festive ball that is at once the best and the worst thing about the holiday season.
It’s that yin and yang, I suppose, that is at the heart of the season captured in classics from Dickenson’s “Christmas Carol” to Seuss’s “Grinch.”
Still, the spirit is there, if you know where to look, and you can find it while saving your hard-earned dollars for important things like tinsel and eggnog.
Here are some ways you can celebrate Christmas in the Smokies without opening your wallet.
5. Walk around downtown Gatlinburg or The Island in Pigeon Forge
There’s something about going for a good winter’s night time walk, letting that cold air fill your lungs and snap your senses open that is inextricably Christmas.
My favorite destination to soak in some seasonal spirit is Gatlinburg, a city built to be accessed by foot.
Sure, there’s a good sized hill but take your time and relax.
Even though Gatlinburg is a small village, at Christmas, it makes me think of the classic carol “Silver Bells.” I suppose it’s the bustling activity and the vaguely European architecture.
If you let your imagination wander, it’s a little bit like time travel, to the golden age of Christmas where I’ve gone back to the age of busy sidewalks filled with people dressed in holiday style and the feeling of Christmas tangible in the air.
Like Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney could walk, arm in arm, out of one of the shops and suddenly, inexplicably, life is a musical but one that somehow captures the joy of a Christmas tinged with melancholy.
In Pigeon Forge, The Island is the perfect spot to walk at night, get a photo at the giant Christmas tree and enjoy the season, but be warned, the brand of Christmas at The Island is very different.
If Gatlinburg is Dean Martin singing Christmas carols into your soul, The Island is Seuss’s Whoville, all neon lights and bombast and electric mirth.
There’s no place for reflection, no time for season sadness even for those of us who enjoy our minor desolations.
4. Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
For reasons we’ve discussed before, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free. On behalf of all Tennesseans, you’re welcome. And Christmas is a great time to get out and explore the wonders of the park and the hiking trails.
I like to go to Cades Cove in the winter and visit the little churches and cabins.
It’s time travel again, but instead of going back to a slick Christmas with packages and men in fedoras, this is a hard scrabble Christmas in which the gifts are homemade and candy or fruit is a treasure.
I like to stand on the hard-board floors and think about a tiny evergreen that had likely been cut down Christmas Eve and decorated with ribbons and maybe strings of popcorn.
It’s cold and hard and, to use a term that carries more condescension than I’d like, simple. But it’s also joyous and free – spiritually as well as financially.
3. Visit The Apple Barn in Sevierville
Located in Sevierville, the Apple Barn’s centerpiece was built in 1910 by a family that farmed the surrounding land for generations. There’s no admission for the barn and, when it’s decorated for Christmas, it’s a sight to see.
A word of caution, however, for the purposes of this exercise, temptation awaits at The Apple Barn.
Sure you can go into the barn and see the sights, check out all the items, watch them make cider and candy and explore the grounds without spending a dime but it’s not easy.
Between the tempting foodstuffs, the beverages and the items for sale, you will be sorely tempted to open your wallet.
Think of this like a Christmas test of willpower.
2. Go for a drive
Technically, this is not free because you’re using gas but let’s not get bogged down in details.
When I was a kid, every year we’d go visit my grandparents in Marion and Grandma Betty would insist that we go down to the park by the river and look at the city’s holiday lights display. It was like if Shadrack’s was put together by the Amish who were willing to budge this time and allow a little electricity but not enough to risk eternal damnation.
Pigeon Forge is significantly better decorated than Marion was and it’s worth loading the kids in the car to cruise the strip and look at all the lights.
I would recommend accessing the traffic situation before embarking on this particular adventure. You don’t want to be sitting in traffic staring at the end of a trolley for two hours, but if traffic is flowing, cruising is always a good time.
1. Visit the Old Mill Square in Pigeon Forge
The Old Mill is, well, an old mill built in 1830 and still functions today.
Like the Apple Barn, you will be tempted to spend money at one of the many diverting little shops and restaurants, but admission is free to come and explore.
The mill is a working tribute to the pioneers of yesteryear and really does a job at Christmas. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a great spot to take family Christmas photos for the ‘gram.
Located near Patriot Park, the main hub for the Pigeon Forge Trolley system, you can park your vehicle at the park (there is a cost) and go for a Trolley ride (also a cost) before or after visiting the Mill.
What are your favorite things to do for free? Let us know in the comments!