Historic Holidays



Long before golf courses, tennis courts, sprawling resorts, and rows of beach umbrellas turned Hilton Head Island into a premier vacation destination, something perhaps even more special was woven into the island’s fabric: rich history and a unique culture that still endures.

Hilton Head’s cultural past has not only survived but has become a valuable asset for an island whose economic lifeblood is tourism. And like other places blessed with colorful history, Hilton Head increasingly looks to “cultural tourism” as a resource important to the island’s prosperity.

Realizing the potential benefits of historically themed events, several island organizations are combining forces this year to present “Historic Holidays on Hilton Head Island, a weekend of Sea Island traditions.”

Scheduled for Dec. 6-9, Historic Holidays will combine the Heritage Library’s annual History Day with other activities normally scheduled during the holiday season, plus some brand new events, according to the library’s executive director, Barbara Catenaci.

Historic Holidays3To stage the Historic Holidays, the Heritage Library is partnering with the Mitchelville Preservation Project, Coastal Discovery Museum, Gullah Museum, the Hilton Head Island Land Trust and the Town of Hilton Head Island’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

The thought behind Historic Holidays was to mesh traditional family gatherings that occur during the holidays with a series of events focusing on Hilton Head Island’s role in American history.

“They’ll experience traditional food and Gullah culture,” Catenaci said. “There will be tours on Saturday. Zion Chapel of Ease is going to be about the colonial Christmas experience …. Fort Howell on what it was like to be a Civil War soldier during the holidays. Mitchelville will tell about Christmas from the perspective of enslaved people, and from freedmen after the war.”

Historic Holidays organizers want to entice visitors interested in arts and culture to come during off-peak seasons and hope Historic Holidays on Hilton Head becomes an annual destination event similar to the month-long Gullah Celebration in February and cycling event Pedal Hilton Head. Catenaci said target marketing efforts aim to draw visitors to the events from the all-important drive market. 

“We’re reaching into Georgia and South Carolina this go ’round,” she said.

Historic Holidays4Events like Historic Holidays are part of a growing trend targeting travelers who seek more than just relaxation on a vacation. They want to learn about the heritage and culture of the places they visit. A 2013 study by Mandala Research & Consulting showed that 60 percent of U.S. leisure travelers were likely to take a cultural/heritage trip, up from 51 percent in a 2009 report. They also spent more: $1,300 per trip in 2013, compared to $994 in 2009.

Heritage tourists tend to be well-traveled, older and educated, according to research cited by the Historic Mitchelville Preservation Project. And they spend more per day than other tourists and are more apt to buy art, antiques, gourmet food and wine. Marketing research also shows that women are often the decision makers when a family, couple, or friend group chooses cultural tourism vacation experiences.

Culture and heritage tourism is a focus for both the town and the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. Charlie Clark, the chamber’s vice president of communications, said that in addition to appealing to vacationers, arts and cultural opportunities also are important to the lucrative group market.

“People are going to come for the beach and the amazing golf courses, bird trails and bike pathways, but there are amazing opportunities to participate in arts and culture, too” said Jenn McEwen, the town’s director of cultural affairs. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other. We have it all here.”  

Historic Holidays on Hilton Head Island

Historic Holidays2

This island-wide celebration of history and culture is Dec. 6-9 and features Lowcountry foods, historic experiences, a holiday market, tours, a Gullah community tree lighting and more. For more information and tickets go to heritagelib.org


◊ Lowcountry food and traditions.
7 p.m. Hudson’s Seafood on the Docks.
Limited admission. Adults, $50; children, $40


◊ Trolley Tour of Hilton Head Historic Sites.
9:30,10:15 and 11a.m., 1:15 and 2 p.m. Adults, $15; children, $5; children under 12, free. Tours leave from Coastal Discovery Museum.

◊ Artisan Market.
10 a.m.- 4 p.m.
Coastal Discovery Museum. Adults, $10; children, $2; children under 12, free.


◊ Central Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church.
10 a.m. Weekly service with traditional gospel choir.
Annual Candlelight Communion Service at 5 p.m. 

◊ Historic Queen Chapel AME Church.
1 p.m. A Christmas story read in the Gullah dialect, carols with the choir.
Gumbo will be sold.

◊ Civil War tour by bicycle.
11:00 a.m., noon, 1 and 2 p.m. $25 or $35 if bicycles are rented.
Tours start at Port Royal clubhouse. 


◊ Research your roots with Heritage Library genealogists.
11 a.m.- 2 p.m. Free with any Historic Holiday event ticket; otherwise $5. 

◊ Lighting of the Big Oak Tree.
5:30 p.m. Mitchelville Freedom P ark. free