The snowbirds have nearly flown, but the Kennebunks light up one last time with the preholiday doings of Christmas Prelude , which celebrates 25 years this December. "It's our gift back to the community," Jackie Kellett, president of the Kennebunkport Business Association, says of the Dec. 1-3 and 8-10 event. Amid the tree lightings, carol singing, Santa sightings, pancake breakfast, chowder supper, historic house tours, organ concert, and craft fairs, the merchants also hope visitors find time to hit the shops. As an incentive, they lay out a movable feast of cookies, hot cider, and other goodies. Most events take place in Kennebunkport proper (which includes the fishing harbor of Cape Porpoise ), but some lie across the bridge in Kennebunk Lower Village. The vagaries of town boundary lines matter less to those coming from a distance. With a dusting of early winter snow, the seaside squiredom of the Kennebunks seems but a single realm.
The merchants have an honest agenda in springing for Prelude: They want you to shop till you drop, and they do offer more unusual merchandise than the nearby malls. Mat Lanigan , proprietor of The Emporium (50 Dock Square, Kennebunkport, 207-967-2139, mainemporium.com ), is in charge of wrapping garlands and lights on the fence along the bridge linking Kennebunkport and Lower Village. "This area gets a lot of wind," he says, "so we really have to tie them." His shop specializes in collectible crystal and china, including ornaments. This year he is selling $10 raffle tickets for a tree hung with Swarovski crystal . "We plan to pack the tree," he says, noting that raffle proceeds will benefit the American Cancer Society.
You can take home a sliver of Maine in the form of a ring, earrings, pendant, or bracelet set with tourmaline (the state gemstone) from Coastal Jewelers (28 Dock Square, Kennebunkport, 207-967-0100, coastaljewelers.com ).
Hand-knit sweaters are the specialty at Flaherty Imports (5 Dock Square, Kennebunkport, 207-967-5443, flahertyimports.com ). Since many are knit in Portugal, owner Sally Roper serves port wine and homemade sponge cake during Prelude.
At Compliments gallery of fine crafts (1 Dock Square, Kennebunkport, 207-967-2269 ) , David Betses always offers a hot hors d'oeuvre -- this year it will be spanakopita made with squash. "You can eat your way through town," he says. "It's like a party."
It's a measure of how low-key Kennebunkport gets in the off-season when the lively piano bar at the pub of the Kennebunkport Inn (1 Dock Square, Kennebunkport, 800-248-2621 or 207-967-2621, kennebunkportinn.com ) is the most happening spot in town.
Catch the jazz strains of a piano-bass duo with dinner at the restaurant known as Pier 77 (77 Pier Road, Cape Porpoise, 207-967-8500, pier77restaurant.com, $16-$24 ), out on the rim of Cape Porpoise harbor. Chef Peter Morency emphasizes bounty from local waters (scallops, oysters, mussels, haddock, lobster), but also slips in some delectable lamb and duck dishes and a fine steak-frites.
For visitors who stay up a bit later, there's always music after dinner (starting around 10:30 p.m.) Thursdays through Saturdays at Federal Jack's Brew Pub (8 Western Ave., Kennebunk Lower Village, 207-967-4322,federaljacks.com ). It's an eclectic mix, ranging from karaoke and retro disco to blues and reggae.
For lunch on the go it's hard to beat the creative sandwiches from the gourmet shop Cape Porpoise Kitchen (1 Mills Road , Cape Porpoise, 207-967-1150, $6-$6.95 ). The store hosts an open house on both Saturdays of Christmas Prelude with samples of the mini-crabcakes and roasted duck tarts so popular with local hostesses. Chef Chris Johnson has developed a fruit chutney for the season. "I asked myself how could you make fruitcake palatable," he says. "I thought maybe if you left out the cake . . ."
Although Hurricane Restaurant (29 Dock Square, Kennebunkport, 207-967-9111, hurricanerestaurant.com , $18-$45 ) sits on the main shopping drag, its back windows overlook the tidal river. Seafood and chops are the house specialties, and the restaurant will open any bottle on the extensive wine list if you commit to at least two glasses.
On the Lower Village side of the bridge, Grissini Italian Bistro (27 Western Ave., Kennebunkport, 207-967-2211, restaurantgrissini.com , $19.95-$32.95 ) offers a creative Tuscan take on New England victuals (lobster ravioli, for example). The big stone fireplace is a welcome sight in December, and wood-grilled steaks, chicken, and tuna make hearty winter fare.
This close to the events, lodging choices are limited, but check for availability on the Christmas Prelude website. Or take a day trip to scout a return stay at one of the grand old homes reborn as inns. The eight members of the Historic Inns of Kennebunkport host an open house on Saturday, Dec. 9 (1-3:30 p.m., $5 admission helps support Community Food Pantry).
The Captain Jefferds Inn (5 Pearl St., Kennebunkport, 800-839-6844 or 207-967-2311, captainjefferdsinn.com , $115-$350) offers champagne punch and home-baked cookies at the open house. Innkeeper Sarah Lindblom bought the roping on the staircase three years before she and her husband purchased the 1804 sea captain's home in April 2005. "For 25 years we collected things for our B&B," she says of a dream now fulfilled.
The cottage suites at the Maine Stay Inn & Cottages (34 Maine St., Kennebunkport, 800-950-2117 or 207-967-2117, mainestayinn.com , $109-$289), another 19th-century sea captain's home, are a good choice for families. George and Janice Yankowski serve cookies and warm cider and surround the Christmas tree in the living room with white poinsettias.
"Santa arriving on a lobster boat -- that's a happening," Jackie Kellett says. In shades of the comic strip "Non Sequitur," the overstuffed elf ties up at the Landing Restaurant near Dock Square on the first Sunday . The following Sunday , he lands at Cape Porpoise Pier , near the Christmas tree assembled from old wooden lobster traps and festooned with lights and garlands.
Kids might also get a kick out of taking a short ride through the woods on a historic electric trolley. The Seashore Trolley Museum (195 Log Cabin Road, Kennebunkport, 207-967-2712, trolleymuseum.org ) closed for the season in October, but brings back trolley rides ($3.50) for the holiday festivities.
For a break from the crowds, take the family for a walk on the beach. Goose Rocks Beach on Kings Highway is best for finding sand dollars, which locals turn into tree ornaments.
On Saturday , St. Anthony Franciscan Monastery (Beach Avenue, Kennebunk Lower Village, 207-967-2011, framon.net ) hosts a candelight carol sing at 6:30 p.m. , following the Lower Village Christmas Stroll. Visitors are also welcome to walk the monastery grounds 6:30 a.m.-5 p.m. during the winter, where one highlight is the dramatic Vatican Pavilion sculpture from the 1964 New York World's Fair .
You can also commune with the portraits of the flinty Yankees who made the Kennebunks prosperous as you get a window on local history at the Brick Store Museum (117 Main St., Kennebunk, 207-985-4802, brickstoremuseum.org, $3 suggested donation ).