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Nine Cool Ways to Celebrate Christmas, California Style

California Christmas Traditions Abound


newport christmas parade

Newport Beach Christmas Parade

Courtesy of David H. Dennis

When you live in a place with more palms than snow, stereotypical images of Christmas just don't work. It's awfully hard to go on a sleigh ride at the beach, after all. But Californians, being an imaginative lot, have come up with a whole batch of variations on Christmas traditions and some new ones of their own, too.

See It Now: Pictures of California at Christmas

  • Harbor Christmas Parades: Take an old-fashioned Christmas parade down to the nearest marina or harbor, substitute decorated and lighted boats for floats, and you've got a California-style Christmas parade. Locations featuring these festive delights include San Diego Harbor's Parade of Lights, and the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade and Oakland/Alameda Estuary Lighted Yacht Parade of more than 100 lighted pleasure craft. If you'd rather be in a boat than watching one pass by, the Huntington Harbor Cruise of Lights is a charming trip through the harbor's waterways past houses decorated with enough lights to make Las Vegas jealous.
  • Christmas "Training": Near Santa Cruz, Roaring Camp Railroad runs a special Holiday Lights Train, leaving from the boardwalk, an especially festive, old-fashioned affair with live music and a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus. You can take a special Polar Express trip in Sacramento, but plan ahead - this event sells out well more than a month ahead of time. Santa also takes a ride with his friends at Railtown 1897 State Park, November through December.
  • Christmas Concerts: The a capella group Chanticleer is a San Francisco area favorite, performing Gregorian chants and popular tunes in some of the area's prettiest venues, including historic Spanish missions. They also perform once every holiday season in Los Angeles at the Disney Concert Hall.
  • Disneyland at Christmas: Disneyland gets gussied up all over, with special parades. The Haunted Mansion and It's a Small World get extra decorations, too.
  • Bracebridge Dinners: Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel dining room transforms into a 17th- century English manor for a three-hour pageant of classic carols, Renaissance rituals, music and food with the Squire and his family, their servants, the Lord of Misrule, minstrels and other characters. We think it's one of the most fun ways to celebrate the holidays that you'll find anywhere in the state.
  • Surfin' Santa: In most places, Santa arrives in a sleigh. In Capitola, just south of Santa Cruz and down at Seaport Village in San Diego, he arrives on a surfboard instead. Decked out in a red wetsuit with all the white trimmings, the Surfin' Santa usually comes ashore on Thanksgiving1 weekend.
  • Tractor Christmas Parade: Calistoga, the northernmost community in Napa Valley, hosts an annual Christmas parade with a twist. Their Tractor Christmas Parade is held the first Saturday in December.
  • Outdoor Light Displays: Southern Californians get especially enthusiastic when it comes to outdoor light displays. Try the Griffith Park Christmas Lights, San Diego Botanic Garden (north of San Diego in Encinitas) or take the Santa Barbara Trolley's special lights tour. In Silicon Valley, the drive-through Fantasy of Lights in Vasona Park near Los Gatos is well worth the time if you're in the area, as is Gilroy Gardens, where you can enjoy the light displays from their family-friendly rides.


  • Hearst Castle decorates for the holidays during the last half of December
  • Oakland's historic Mountain View Cemetery hosts a Circle of Lights every December, with holiday lights and activities.
  • The historic adobe homes in Monterey Historical Park open in early December for special holiday candlelight tours.
  • The Mission Inn in Riverside's Mission Inn Festival of Lights has been a local favorite for over two decades.
  • If you're looking for some lights to see somewhere else, try the California Christmas Lights website, which covers hundreds of houses and neighborhoods in northern and central California.

But some things never change. Before Californians go to sleep on Christmas Eve, they still say, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

More: Christmas at Disneyland | Christmas in Los Angeles | Christmas in Orange County | Christmas in San Diego | Christmas in San Francisco

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