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Branson decks the halls with lights, toys and fruitcakes

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Branson takes its reputation as one of America's most Christmasy towns seriously. This Ozark Mountain retreat has made its Christmas lineup of events a treasured tradition for more than a quarter century, with celebrations running from the first day of November through New Year's Day.

The town's Christmas offerings are plentiful, so we've made a list (and checked it twice) to highlight 10 of the "can't miss" sights and sounds of the season.

1. Silver Dollar City -- The award-winning theme park in Branson transforms into a Christmas wonderland through Dec. 30. From strolling among 6.5 million lights (the equivalent of 680 miles) and trying out some of the park's rides to seasonal shows and shopping at the Home of American Craftsmanship, a day at the park is a magical way to enjoy the Christmas season. Highlights of the park's "Old Time Christmas" celebration are a five-story Special Effects Christmas Tree and a nightly light parade featuring Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, lighted floats and nearly 50 costumed characters through the streets of Silver Dollar City. The park's special seasonal menu has everything from festive walk-away treats to harvest buffets and just about everything you can imagine in between. INFO -- silverdollarcity.com.

2. Live Shows -- Branson is famous for them, and the Christmas lineup doesn't disappoint. From a Cirque Christmas show with the world's only aerial acrobatic violinist to a quartet harmony, the Christmas performances in Branson are as dynamic as they are spectacular. The Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza, at the theater that honors a man synonymous with television Christmas specials of yesteryear, is back for its 26th season. The late Andy Williams is the crooner who reminded us that Christmas is "the most wonderful time of the year," and they really pull out all the stops at his theater, which is now owned by Jimmy Osmond. With singing, dancing, prancing reindeer and more, this show features the Moon River Orchestra performing everyone's favorite Christmas songs. INFO -- andywilliamspac.com.

3. Branson Scenic Railway -- Visitors can enjoy the opportunity to step inside a classic Christmas tale aboard the renowned "Polar Express." After boarding an authentic locomotive at the 1906 Branson depot, visitors to The Polar Express will experience a journey with character reenactments, a reading of the classic book, a visit with Santa, and plenty of hot chocolate and cookies. Families are even encouraged to come dressed in their pajamas, just as the children did in the original story. INFO -- bransontrain.com.

4. Let There Be Light! -- Christmas displays can be found shining brightly throughout this Ozark Mountain town. The Branson Ferris Wheel not only provides a bird's-eye view of the town's holiday lights, but a ride also comes complete with its own Christmas-centric soundtrack and 144,000 LED lights. Driving tours include "Let There Be Light!," which features a two-mile LED display, Santa and live reindeer available for photos, a Christmas Village with a nativity petting zoo and Christmas movies; "Branson's Gift of Lights," the area's traditional festival of Christmas lights that includes a Magical Mile with the 12 Days of Christmas and a Nativity Scene; and "Trail of Lights," a two-and-a-half mile route through the historic Shepherd of the Hills Homestead. Bringing to life Branson's commitment to becoming America's Christmas Tree City, area businesses will proudly display more than 1,000 of the most colorful, unique, and creative trees in all shapes, sizes throughout town.

5. Go Nuts! -- At College of the Ozarks, students bake a whopping 25,000 fruit cakes annually in the Fruitcake & Jelly Kitchen. The tradition of producing these famous fruitcakes on campus dates back to 1934 and today it helps students offset the costs of their education. The kitchen is open for public tours and fruitcakes are available for purchase Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. INFO -- 417-690-3395.

6. Toys For Everyone! -- Whether you're 1 or 101, you can make your dreams come true at the World's Largest Toy Museum, where more than a million dolls, trains, teddy bears, action figures, collectibles -- and everything else you can remember from your earliest Christmases -- are all in one location. INFO -- worldslargesttoymuseum.com.

7. Go Shopping -- What Christmas trip would be complete without shopping for those on your Christmas list? Specialty shops, outlet malls and unique-to-Branson experiences are ready to help you put presents under the tree. Dicks 5 & 10, one of the country's last remaining authentic dime stores, should be renamed "Stocking Stuffer Central" because there's not much this place doesn't have. And Silver Dollar City's Jingle Bell Junction has everything you need to make the season bright, including more than 35,000 ornaments. INFO -- dicks5and10.com; silverdollarcity.com.

8. Stay Over -- Branson's lodging options provide warm accommodations for when you're ready to settle in for a long winter's nap. From national-brand hotels to independent inns, cabin and condo rentals, and vacation homes, many of the lodging offerings participate in the Christmas festivities. The renowned Big Cedar Lodge resort is offering a "Happy Holidays Package," which includes two nights lodging, a Christmas photo session, a breakfast buffet and tickets to the resort's newest holiday scavenger hunt activity, Sleigh Bell Scurry. INFO -- bigcedar.com.

9. Happy New Year! -- If you don't make it in time to celebrate before Christmas, don't worry: many of the Ozark Mountain Christmas festivities continue through Jan. 1. The last two days of the year are focused on fun for the grown-ups and ringing in the New Year in style. Several of the live music theaters have blowout celebrations and the Chateau on the Lake Resort Spa and Convention Center hosts a cocktail party with dinner, dancing, a champagne toast and a fireworks display over the lake. INFO -- chateauonthelake.com.

10. Salute to Veterans -- And finally, an event that is spectacular, but stands apart from the rest: the annual Veterans Homecoming Week in Branson is one of the largest events of its type in the U.S., culminating in the Veterans Day Parade downtown at 11:11 a.m. today, Nov. 11


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