What's the best part of the holiday season? Some say the gift-giving and receiving. Others say the food and drink - what with all those delectable sweets, rich egg nog and hot cider.
Still others say the holiday music is really what makes the season. (Who hasn't belted out "Feliz Navidad" along with the car radio?)
Then there are those who insist that the dazzling lights and sparkling sights are the highlight of the holiday season. As for me, I'm with them.
Already, as the sun races to set so very early and the leaves hurry themselves off the trees, the holiday lights are coming up, all over. At the shopping mall, along small-town main streets and at the house down the block.
While there's much to be said for those lovely lights, there's a bigger, brighter world out there. Throughout Maryland and just over the border in Pennsylvania and Virginia, there are a number of venues offering extreme-wattage holiday-light displays.
Some locations offer drive-through tours, some offer walk-through tours. All offer stunning displays of illumination - from giant lighted crabs in Ocean City, to a bedazzling display of midshipmen tossing their hats into the air in Annapolis, to a sobering display of 23,000 candles spread across Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg.
Below is a roundup of some of the more awe-inspiring light shows in our vicinity. So gather up the kids, grab a camera and get ready to ooh and ahh at the pretty lights.
Symphony of Lights
Location: Symphony Woods, Columbia. Use Merriweather Post Pavilion entrance on Broken Land Parkway.
Dates: Nov. 25-Jan 5.
Hours: 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and holidays through Dec. 12; 6 p.m.-11 p.m. daily Dec. 13-Jan. 5.
Tour specifics: 20- to 30-minute, 1.4-mile drive-through display.
What you'll see: More than 70 larger-than-life, animated and stationary holiday light creations set against a natural wooded backdrop.
Admission: $12 per car, van or recreational vehicle up to 11 passengers; $25 commercial vans and minibuses seating 12-24 people; $75 buses exceeding 24 passengers.
Benefits: Howard County General Hospital.
Lights on the Bay
Location: Sandy Point State Park, Route 50, Exit 32, near Annapolis.
Dates: Nov. 22-Jan. 5.
Hours: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Tour specifics: 20- to 25-minute, 2.5-mile drive-through display.
What you'll see: More than 60 stationary and animated illuminated displays, including leaping deer and midshipmen tossing their hats into the air.
Admission: $12 per car; $50 per bus.
Benefits: Anne Arundel Medical Center.
Winter Lights Festival
Location: Seneca Creek State Park, Clopper Road (Route 117), Gaithersburg.
Dates: Nov. 29-Dec. 31.
Hours: 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Tour specifics: 3.5-mile drive-through light show, in a forest setting.
What you'll see: More than 300 illuminated displays, including 55 animated creations. See polar bears, deer, arches of light and marching toy soldiers. Theme areas include "Winter Woods," where nature comes alive; "Teddy Bear Land," where dozens of bears get into mischief; a "Victorian Village," complete with a shimmering ice-skating pond; and "Reindeer Flight School," where deer train for the big flight.
Admission: $10 per car; $25 per 15-passenger van; $50 buses.
Benefits: Local charities.
Winterfest of Lights
Location: Ocean City. Winterfest Express Train, Northside Park, 127th Street and the bay; Tunnel of Lights, Inlet Parking Lot; Avenue of Trees, Baltimore Avenue, from 15th to 32nd streets.
Dates: Today-Jan. 2.
Hours: Ceremonial tree-lighting and opening celebration at 5:30 p.m. today at Northside Park; Winterfest Express Train, 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; Tunnel of Lights and Avenue of Trees, 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. daily.
Tour specifics: Winterfest Express Train, one-mile rail ride along light displays; Tunnel of Lights, drive-through display; Avenue of Trees, walk- or drive-through display.
What you'll see: Train rides take you along a path filled with colorful, glittering light displays. See animated magic genies, toy soldiers, the 12 days of Christmas, crabs and other dancing lights. Drive yourself to the Inlet to see the nautically themed light displays in the parking lot, including Santa Claus fishing. Head to the 17-block Avenue of Trees to catch traditionally decorated holiday trees and old-fashioned decorated lampposts.
Admission: $3 for train rides, under 12 free; other events free.
Call: 410-289-2800 or 800-OC-OCEAN.
Garden of Lights
Location: Brookside Gardens, 1800 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton.
Dates: Nov. 21-24, 29-30; Dec. 1, 5-8, 12-15, 18-23, 26-30; Jan. 1-5.
Hours: 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m. (last car admitted 8:30 p.m.).
Tour specifics: A half-mile walk-through display.