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It's a Winter Wonderland: California's Top Festivals in December

It's a Winter Wonderland: California's Top Festivals in December

The holiday season is too festive to miss a thing, so we found California’s top events to keep the holly-jolly holidays going all month long

Mackenzie Hutson


4 min read

December 01, 2019

The holiday season is in full swing. Between the ugly Christmas sweater party you’ve been planning, the tree lightings throughout the state, the Disney Christmas Parade you can’t miss, and the Christmas activities (for kids) you’ve been adding to your Pinterest boards since April, there hardly seems to be time for all the festivals happening in December. But the Christmas season is far too festive to miss a thing, so we sought out California’s best events to keep the holly-jolly holidays going all month long. 

Queen Mary Christmas

Long Beach

Enjoy the holiday season with festive lights, crafts, and photo ops at the Queen Mary. Photo courtesy of the Queen Mary.

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Experience the magic of the holiday season at the Queen Mary, one of California’s most haunted destinations. Start your Christmas activities on land at the holiday ice rink before checking out the Christmas crafts, including gingerbread house–making and stocking decorating. After grabbing a sweet treat, it’s time to board the Queen Mary to see it in all of its holiday glory. This unique Christmas event comes complete with storytime with Mrs. Claus, photo ops with Santa himself in the Captain’s Quarters, and a 4-D version of The Polar Express that features the scents of hot chocolate and beautiful swirls of snow. The Christmas festival begins on Friday, November 29, and continues through Sunday, December 22, on select days; but between December 23 and January 1, the Queen Mary Christmas activities are available daily. Grab your tickets to the movie screenings, reserve your spot for breakfast with Santa, and get ready for all the holiday spirit you can handle. 

The Dickens Fair 

Daly City

The Dickens Fair is one of San Francisco's most unique Christmas festivals. Complete with dancing, food vendors, theatrical performances, and loads of holiday cheer, this experience will transport you to Victorian London. Photo courtesy of The Great Dickens Fair.

Formally known as The Great Dickens Fair and Victorian Holiday Party, The Dickens Christmas Fair is a truly unique way to celebrate Christmas in the city. Wander down the streets of Victorian London; view the Historic Exhibition Halls’ representation of Covent Garden; take photos of the characters from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; shop for handmade goods; and eat as much French onion soup, English bangers, or fish and chips as you can—but for goodness sake, don’t eat the chestnuts. Sing, dance, and have a happy Christmas in London without leaving the San Francisco Bay Area. Stop by for a single afternoon, or wander through every weekend until December 22 with a season pass.  

Festival of Lights at Mission Inn Hotel & Spa


As one of the country's biggest Christmas light collections of its kind, Mission Inn and Spa's Festival of Lights is a sight to behold. Photo courtesy of the Mision Inn Hotel and Spa.

You can stop your endless searches for “Christmas lights near me,” because the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa’s Festival of Lights is returning for its 27th annual event, and you won’t want to miss it. Featuring one of the country’s largest Christmas light collections, this free, five-week celebration offers plenty of fun Christmas activities for the whole family. Check out the largest man-made mistletoe in the world, 200 animated figures, horse-drawn carriage rides, a life-sized gingerbread house, and holiday treats that commemorate this festive season.

Balboa Park December Nights

San Diego

Experience the Christmas spirit and traditions from across the world without leaving California. Balboa Park's December Nights festival is one of San Diego's most exciting events of the year and is sure to leave you feeling holly jolly. Photo courtesy of Balboa Park December Nights.

The December Nights holiday festival turns Balboa Park into a winter wonderland and starts the joyous season off right. Make your way over to Balboa Park on December 6 and 7 for dozens of food vendors, live music, light displays, carnival rides, and more. Munch on funnel cake, kettle corn, loaded tots, or soft-serve as you peruse the endless booths serving food from around the world. While it’s easy to enjoy the fun once you’re there, parking can prove challenging, so consider carpooling or taking a rideshare to the event. 

Winter Walk SF

San Francisco 

Full of food trucks, seasonal photo ops, and mistletoe, San Francisco's Winter Walk is the perfect free activity this holiday season. Photo courtesy of the Union Square Foundation.

As if the holiday season wasn’t magical enough already, it also brings free and low-cost Christmas activities to famously expensive areas, like our beloved San Francisco. Ride BART to Montgomery or Powell Street stations, and walk to Grant Avenue to experience the holiday festivities for yourself. Food trucks, photo ops, and family-friendly activities await between Geary and Post Streets. After you’ve wandered through the Christmas celebration, hook a left to find the holiday ice-skating rink at Union Square. 

With the Lighted Boat Parade in Santa Cruz, the Winter Fest in Orange County, SkyPark at Santa’s Village in Lake Arrowhead, and The Dickens Dinners at Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, it’s hard to choose favorites. Let us know which holiday festivals you think are California’s best in the comments below. 

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