A day away is a precious thing. So you don’t want to spend it going to see just things. It’s people we remember and they’re why we travel. How we gather together under shared festive lights or spend time with those who have carved out unique moments. And when it comes to sharing time with unforgettable personalities, especially during December’s indelible and chilly days, Ottawa is warmed by beating hearts.
There’s the sound of sleigh bells and the slow clip-clop of a gentle team of Belgian draft horses. It’s snowing lightly in Ottawa’s historic ByWard Market.
You sink into the padded seats as the black-and-red Cundell Stables wagon passes heritage buildings and brick courtyards decked out with cheery seasonal finery. And the faces of other visitors – and locals – turn your way. A large city, Ottawa suddenly becomes a small, shared community every festive December.
John Cundell is at the reigns, enthusiastically serenading his passengers with a rendition of Jingle Bells, as nearby, a choir can be heard singing other Christmas carols in the Market.
“You always have a smile when you’re on the wagon,” says Cundell, who makes holiday memories for visitors with free seasonal ByWard Market wagon rides on the weekends.
“Some sing Christmas carols. You’re right in the season,” he says, adding he enjoys the festive community atmosphere. “It’s a great feeling.”
Cundell is the third-generation owner of the last remaining horse stables in Ottawa’s Lowertown, a family business that dates back to 1890. With tours including a horse eye-view of the Parliament buildings and romantic carriage rides, Cundell and his steeds are popular with visitors.
The red stables are behind the Cundells’ house, home to Belgian draft horses, Chip and Jake, as well as six sweet miniature horses. Market vendors and visitors often leave bags of carrots and apples at the gate for the famous Cundell dobbins.
Visitors come back every year for the Christmas wagon, Cundell says with pride. One 88-year-old passenger said he still recalls his first ride at age eight.
The man at the reins is delighted to be part of so many holiday memories, pointing out: “We’re in everybody’s photo album – that’s one true thing.”
While the horses may be in those pictures, it’s often Cundell, with his warm personality, that people remember – and return for.
Cundell enjoys living near the historic market, with its lively mix of retailers, market stalls and restaurants filled with locals and visitors alike. He believes it’s a must-see when visitors spend time in Ottawa, especially during the holidays.
A day or weekend getaway to Ottawa has many seasonal moments to keep visitors busy, so say goodbye to Chip and Jake and head to the Casino Lac-Leamy Plaza at Lansdowne to take in the new Ottawa Christmas Market.
Modelled after traditional European outdoor Christmas markets, it runs Nov. 29 to Dec. 22. Enjoy seasonal food and drink, holiday entertainment and sparkling Christmas trees.
Walk along magical streetscapes under a canopy of lights to chat with vendors at cabin-style stalls. Cozy up with a beverage at a central bar, or warm yourself by one of the cheery fire pits, and strike up a conversation with fellow travellers sitting nearby.
Nearby, the Ottawa Farmers' Market hosts a Christmas market every weekend in December (through Dec. 22) with more than 100 food and farm stalls, plus local craftspeople to help you fill a holiday shopping list.
As darkness falls, a dazzling and colourful holiday light show starts throughout Canada’s capital. And you’re among the coterie to come together as the night lights up.
Magic of Lights Ottawa at the Wesley Clover Parks Campground is a drive-through experience along a two-kilometre festive lights display route that takes visitors through the ‘Enchanting Tunnel of Lights’, ‘Snowflake Forest’ and ‘Candy Cane Lane’.
Parliament Hill puts on its annual brilliant holiday display with the 34th edition of Christmas Lights Across Canada. The ceremonial switch is pulled Dec. 4 to start the illuminations that run through early January.
The magical winter lightscapes multimedia show adds to the festive spirit, projecting stunning images on the Parliament buildings.
There is something special, and very Canadian, about the friendly and shared gathering that takes place to watch the show unfold.
And if it’s more character you crave, you might come across another Ottawa holiday expert around the Dec. 4 opening event – the infamous Christmas Krampus.
Glen Shackleton, CEO of the Haunted Walk of Ottawa, dresses up each year like the mythic horned demon of Central European folklore, who punishes kids on the Yuletide naughty list. This grouchy soul has a people-pleasing side, though. He’s always happy to pose for photos with visitors.
“They put up all the lights all around the Capital Region to bring joy to everyone and that’s a problem for Krampus.”
– Glen Shackleton, who annually plays the mythical demon, Christmas Krampus.
Want some ghouls with your Yule? The company runs 75-minute Nightmare Before/After Xmas tours in December to explore the darker side of the Christmas season, with a walking tour inside the historic Bytown Museum.
But portraying a seasonal bad guy doesn’t mean Shackleton isn’t a happy holidays fan. He says warm BeaverTails pastry, hot chocolate and Christmas music “lifts the spirits,” and he loves to see people gather together.
“Krampus is grouchy, so maybe I should say the things he hates,” Shackleton jokes. “The lighting of the Parliament buildings is so beautiful. They put up all the lights all around the Capital Region to bring joy to everyone and that’s a problem for Krampus.”
Shackleton is also a big fan of the gorgeous light display amid the historic setting of Upper Canada Village, just outside Ottawa. The heritage buildings, trees and low fences are decorated with nearly one million colourful bulbs for the annual Alight at Night Festival.
And if the weather co-operates, there’s skating on the Rideau Canal, an ideal way to admire the holiday scene, he says.
Ottawa is a place to embrace winter and enjoy the outdoors with others, Shackleton says. Make like a local, dress in warm layers and head outside for a truly festive getaway.
“If you’re coming to Ottawa in the winter, dress for winter and it really is amazing,” he says. “People should come now because it’s beautiful.”
Truth is, a holiday visit to Ottawa comes with enough shared seasonal warmth to melt even a Krampus’s chilled heart.
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.