Christmas in California: 17 Places to Get Into the Holiday Spirit

Christmas in California

The best places to celebrate Christmas in California! From the snow to the sun, these are the top holiday events and most Christmassy towns in California.

Christmas in California is full of surprises.

Despite its reputation as a place of endless summer, California is home to America’s tallest living Christmas tree, its oldest lighted boat parade, and some of the country’s best neighborhood Christmas light displays.

You’ll find quirky traditions, holiday markets, festive events, and plenty of over-the-top illuminations across California, all through December. 

But the best thing about celebrating the holidays in California is the fantastic weather. Where else can you spend the morning skiing and the afternoon surfing? 

Whether you love palm trees and sunshine, or cozy log cabins and snow, there’s a California Christmas for you.

In this article, we’ll take you around to the best places to enjoy holiday cheer in the Golden State and give you the full rundown on how to have the best Christmas in California.  

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.

California in December

Table of Contents

Christmas in California Map


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Lake Tahoe

For all you cold-weather, log cabin-loving traditionalists out there, Tahoe is the perfect place to spend a California Christmas. 

Located high in the Sierras, Lake Tahoe regularly sees up to three feet of snow during December, so this is one of your best bets for a Californian White Christmas.

Watch out for Santa on the slopes as he takes a well-earned break from Christmas preparations to make a few runs. 

Lake Tahoe Christmas

Christmas Activities in Tahoe

Aside from skiing, Lake Tahoe has plenty of fun wintry activities to enjoy. The Ritz Carlton, Lake Tahoe, offers gingerbread-making classes, daily live music, and visits from Santa. 

The hotel also takes bookings for its Menorah Lighting Ceremony, Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners, plus a New Year’s Day brunch.

Head to Northstar for Noel Nights, where the whole family can enjoy apres-ski around the ice skating rink. 

This is where kids can roast s’mores over a fire pit and get their faces painted while parents relax with a craft beer or cocktail.

S’mores not your thing? Take a grown-up tour of Incline Village on the Santa Pub Crawl, taking place this year on December 11th. 

Finally, for some epic views of Tahoe’s winter wonderland, don’t miss Heavenly’s gigantic Ferris wheel in South Lake Tahoe. It’ll be operating December 27–31, 2021, between 11 am – 9 pm.

Read our complete guide to the best things to do in Lake Tahoe and North vs South Lake Tahoe.

Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe

Read our guides to camping in Lake Tahoe and where to stay in Lake Tahoe.

Nevada City

In the movies, it’s always summertime in California, and most city tourism boards lean into the stereotype.

But not Nevada City. An hour north of Sacramento, this Northern California town goes full festive spirit for the month of December.

Christmas Activities in Nevada City

Nevada City is the perfect setting for a romantic California Christmas break with its Victorian architecture, hilly street, and authentic gas lamps. 

In fact, it’s so perfect it was used as the location for the Hallmark movie, “The Christmas Card.”

In December, the downtown transforms into a Victorian Christmas market on Wednesdays and Sundays. 

Singers and bagpipers in Victorian costumes spread holiday cheer as you munch on roasted chestnuts under twinkling lights.

While you’re there, stop into nearby Grass Valley, which celebrates the season with its annual Cornish Christmas festival

Sip mulled wine, warm up by the fire pit and listen to the Cornish choir caroling while you finish your holiday shopping.

Where to Stay in Nevada City

Solvang

Find out what hygge is all about in Solvang, the little Danish town hidden in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.

Windmills: check. Danish pastries: check. Bringing light and joy to the darkest days of the year with Julefest, an annual celebration of all things winter? Check! 

Christmas in Solvang

Christmas Activities in Solvang

Julefest runs from November 27th to January 1st and is packed with events, starting with the tree lighting on December 3. 

Stick around the following day for the Julefest parade at 11 am for marching bands, horses, and 500 participants. 

Join in the hunt for the Solvang Nisse throughout the month, a mischievous gnome who hides in the village. 

Kids will also love Santa’s Village, where families can meet the big man every Saturday in December.

However, my favorite Solvang Christmas event is the candlelit evening tour, where you can learn about Danish traditions from a local while listening to carols. 

Read our full guide to the best things to do in Solvang.

Where to Stay in Solvang

Mendocino

The quiet coastal town of Mendocino in Northern California is the perfect antidote to the frantic commercialism of the holiday season. 

With not a chain store in sight, shopping for local, handmade gifts is a relaxing experience.

Take a stroll on the beach, or through the redwoods, before cozying up in front of a fire at a romantic inn.

Mendocino Christmas, Skunk Train

Christmas Activities in Mendocino

While visiting Mendocino, hop on the famous Skunk Train, departing from nearby Fort Bragg. 

This is the most famous Christmas train in California and a unique way to experience the ancient redwood groves.

This year on the train, there will be a reading of Skippy the TrainDeer, a visit from Santa, and a goody bag full of treats to take home.

You also won’t want to miss the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Festival of Lights

The garden transforms into a winter wonderland of festive lights for the holiday season. Look out for the fire-breathing dragon and shooting stars!

After the show, head into the heated tent for a warm spiced cider or hot chocolate. You’ll find sweet treats for sale and live music, and kids (and kids at heart) can toast marshmallows over the campfire.

Read our detailed guide on the best things to do in Mendocino.

Where to Stay in Mendocino

San Diego

Snow is fine and all, but by the 25th, I’m starting to need a little sunshine back in my life. 

Although you should expect some rain in December, San Diego has a warm and sunny climate year-round.

It’s also an excellent time to visit theme parks or the San Diego Zoo when the crowds are smaller and the temperatures milder. 

Switch up your traditional Christmas tree for palm trees this year and embrace a laid-back Southern California holiday.

Christmas in San Diego

Christmas Activities in San Diego

While you could easily pass the time drinking margaritas in Old Town San Diego (I won’t judge), there are plenty of California Christmas activities going on in San Diego in December.

Visit polar bears and reindeer at San Diego Zoo through a path of lighted trees. Then, stick around for Aurora, an immersive nightly performance featuring sound, lights, 3D projections, and dancing.

The zoo is lit up with festive lights throughout December, and there are plenty of fun holiday-themed activities for kids too.

Besides the zoo, go ice skating at the beach at the historic Coronado Del Rey Hotel, a uniquely San Diego experience. The large ice rink faces the ocean, so you can enjoy the sea breeze while you glide.

On December 12th and 19th, head to the beach for the Parade of Lights. At 5.30 pm, watch the procession of beautifully lit boats sail around the San Diego Bay. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the popular boat parade.

On December 3rd, 5th, and 7th, Balboa Park hosts December Nights. Located just north of downtown San Diego, this is a fun annual tradition celebrating the city’s diverse cultures.

For 2021, the format is a drive-through, so visitors can enjoy international cuisine and live music from the safety of their cars. 

Read our guide to the 101 things to do in San Diego.

Where to Stay in San Diego

Disneyland

If you want to recapture the Christmas magic of childhood, Disneyland in Anaheim, California, delivers. 

The whole park is splendidly decked out for the festive season, rides get a seasonal twist, and the cooler weather makes queuing more bearable.

Reservations are a must this year, but otherwise, it’s business as usual for Disneyland during Christmas.

Christmas in Disneyland

Christmas Activities in Disneyland

Check out the 60-foot Christmas tree in Town Square, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle glittering in 80,000 LED lights, and the classic Disneyland attraction, It’s A Small World.

In December, the Haunted Mansion also gets a Jack Skellington takeover, based on the Tim Burton movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” 

Cars Land in California Adventure also receives a festive overhaul. This area is perfect for families with small children who are too little for the bigger rides.

And Disneyland has a new after-hours ticketed event this year, Merriest Nights. 

Guests enter at 5 pm and the party starts at 8 pm, ending at midnight. There’s live music, character meeting opportunities, and a parade.

Read our guide to the best things to do in Orange County.

Where to Stay in Disneyland

Los Angeles

The City of Angels may not strike you as a particularly Christmassy destination, but the city’s residents go ALL OUT for the holidays. 

If you love Christmas lights displays, head to LA for a merry and bright Christmas in California.

Christmas in Los Angeles

Christmas Activities in Los Angeles

Get dressed up and head to The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles for a concert. See the LA Philharmonic, LA Symphony, or LA Opera, all in one location. 

Enjoy Handel’s Messiah, sing your heart out at a holiday sing-along, or go to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

On weekend December nights, the LA Dodgers host a holiday party with a huge ice rink, light displays, food and drink, and the chance to take a picture with Santa.

Universal Studios Hollywood also celebrates the season with Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where you can sample a Butterbeer and see Hogsmeade in the snow.

For a memorable drive-through light show, Santas Speedway is a NASCAR track-turned winter wonderland. 

This year, it’s back, bigger, brighter, and better than ever. There’s even a 30’ teddy bear and a 110’ tall Christmas tree. 

Alternatively, take a drive through a residential neighborhood. Candy Cane Lane is an eight-block area in Woodhills, Los Angeles that dazzles with festive lights every year from December 2nd.

If you want to take a look, go to the intersection of Lubao and Oxnard Streets in Woodland Hills after dark but before 10 pm.

Christmas Tree Lane, another favorite for Christmas lights, begins at the corner of E Calaveras Street and Santa Rosa Avenue, Altadena, just north of Pasadena. 

Locals have been lighting up December nights for almost 100 years, and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

And the ultimate holiday lights show in California can be found at the Mission Inn Festival at Upper Hastings Ranch.

The historic inn is located in Riverside, just east of LA. It’s a beautiful hotel any time of the year, but Christmas is when it shines. Literally. 

With millions of Christmas lights, a Ferris wheel, and live bands, all for free, this event will get you into the festive spirit.

Read our full bucket list for 100+ Things to do in LA.

Where to Stay in Los Angeles

San Francisco

From the quirky to the grand, there’s a San Francisco Christmas event for every taste. And December is still not as cold as July! (Kidding – it’s always cold in San Francisco).

San Francisco is a small city, so you can mix it up and go to several of these events in one day.

Christmas in San Francisco

 

Christmas Activities in San Francisco

Dress up and book a holiday tea or Christmas dinner at the elegant Fairmont Hotel, where you can dine in festive style under the enormous glass dome.

Even if you’re not planning to eat here, stop by the lobby to gaze in wonder upon the two-story Victorian gingerbread house in its iced glory, which is on display throughout December.

Take a break from Christmas shopping to visit Union Square Ice Rink, where you can work up an appetite for a warming clam chowder from a sourdough bowl (there’s a Bourdin Bakery in Macy’s).

Check out the Great Dickens Christmas Fair at Cow Palace for a very San Francisco Bay event. 

The fair, which takes place every weekend throughout December, is a food, shopping, and performance extravaganza, inspired by A Christmas Carol.

Later, take a stroll through Golden Gate Park, which is transformed into an enchanted forest of light for the season. The beautiful art installation delights visitors until February 1st.

Finally, the popular Home Alone in Concert is back for the holiday season. It’s your favorite Christmas movie, accompanied by a live score from the San Francisco Symphony.

Read our complete bucket list for 100+ Things to do in San Francisco.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

Mammoth Lakes

High in the Eastern Sierras, Mammoth Lakes is a beautiful spot with mountains, lakes, and snow. 

Take a gondola to the summit of Mammoth Mountain at a breathtaking 11,000 feet and admire the view before skiing or ice tubing down. 

Aside from the usual winter fun, Mammoth Lakes is a laid-back resort town with Mammoth Village boasting a movie theater, bowling alley, spa, several restaurants, and shops.

Mammoth Lakes Christmas

Christmas Activities in Mammoth Lakes

On December 18th, fireworks light up the sky for Night of Lights, a free evening with live music, a torchlight parade, kid’s activities, and snowmobile rides.

Mammoth Mountain has plenty of slopes to choose from if you love to ski or snowboard, including beginner and more challenging routes. 

Or, if this doesn’t appeal, snowmobiles, ice tubing, and cross-country skiing are all fun alternatives.

And Tamarack Lodge and The Westin are serving Christmas dinners this year, so you can relax in a cozy ski lodge without any of the stress.

Nearby June Mountain is known as one of the most family-friendly ski resorts in the state. 

This is the ideal place to take kids with gentle slopes and fewer crowds. And as an added bonus, under 12s ski for free.

For a fun side trip, Death Valley is a three-hour drive south. Ski in the morning and hike to the hottest place on earth in the afternoon for a uniquely California experience. 

Where to Stay in Mammoth Lakes

Palm Springs

After a tough year, Palm Springs is the ultimate destination for some R&R. 

This desert resort town located two hours east of LA basks in 300 days of sunshine a year, and average December temperatures peak at a balmy 70F.

Eating, floating on a lazy river, and drinking cocktails by the pool are all perfectly acceptable Palm Springs activities. 

However, if you’re craving some festive cheer, there are plenty of fun Christmas events in December as well.

Palm Springs Christmas

Christmas Activities in Palm Springs

Leave the palm trees behind for the lofty heights of Mt San Jacinto State Park on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating tramcar.

On the ten-minute journey, you’ll travel two-and-one-half miles along Chino Canyon, marveling at the view.

By the end, you’ll find yourself at an elevation of 8,516 feet, where you may find snow. 

Adventurous souls can try snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and even snow camping on the mountain.

If snow hasn’t arrived yet, enter the annual snow-guessing competition. The winner receives four tram passes and a special memento.

At the Living Desert Zoo, experience Wildlights. The annual Christmas lights festival of animal lanterns, sparkling tunnel of lights, and colorful pathways at the zoo is a much-loved local tradition.

Another fun Palm Springs Christmas event is Santa’s Fly In when Santa arrives at the Palm Springs Air Museum in a helicopter to greet excited children.

On the first Saturday of December, catch another event to get you into the festive spirit – the Palm Springs Festival of Lights Parade

The colorfully lit floats, marching band, and performers delight the crowd along Palm Canyon Drive every year.

Read our full guide to the best things to do in Palm Springs.

Where to Stay in Palm Springs

Sacramento

Christmas is a great time to visit California’s capital when the beautiful buildings shine with colorful lights, and the waterfront becomes a winter wonderland.

Bar crawls, live performances, ice skating, and holiday markets – there are plenty of special holiday events throughout the month of December in Sacramento.

Sacramento Christmas

Christmas Activities in Sacramento

The Theater of Lights is a free event at the Old Sacramento Waterfront that happens throughout December. 

The 20-minute Christmas lights show takes place on the balconies above K St., culminating in the nightly lighting of the Christmas tree by Santa himself.

The city also installs a 65’ Ferris wheel and carousel on the waterfront for the season.

A fun way to explore Sacramento during the holidays is to participate in Holiday Hunt, a free, festive-themed scavenger hunt. The prize is a stay at the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel and gift cards.

Also downtown is the popular open-air ice skating rink, perfect for a date night.

Sacramento also has some great holiday markets throughout December. 

Pop-up markets, like Warehouse Creative on December 11th at the waterfront, are a great way to avoid crowded malls and pick up a thoughtful gift from a local artisan.

To get into the “spirit” of the season, join The Zebra Club for its Christmas Bar Crawl on Saturday, December 11th. 

To participate, you must buy a ticket and purchase a toy for donation to Toys For Tots.

Read our detailed guide to 101 Things to do in Sacramento.

Where to Stay in Sacramento

San Jose

Silicon Valley’s biggest city has a vibrant downtown and its famous Christmas in the Park event to fill you with cheer.

Take a break from holiday shopping to visit the ice rink, catch a performance of The Nutcracker, or visit one of the city’s many museums.

Christmas in San Jose

Christmas Activities in San Jose

Christmas in the Park, San Jose’s biggest Christmas event, happens each year at Plaza de Cesar Chavez Park in the heart of downtown.

Each December, the park turns into a winter wonderland with entertainment, Christmas trees decorated by local kids, food, music, and rides.

Downtown San Jose also hosts a huge ice rink at Kristi Yamaguchi Downtown Ice

This is the only ice rink in the world circled by 32 palm trees, a uniquely Californian winter experience. Delicious hot cocoa is sold just outside the gate.

Get dressed up and see The Nutcracker at San Jose Dance Theater, an annual San Jose Christmas season tradition for 56 years. 

Or, for something a little different, check out the magical Cirque production, A Magical Cirque Christmas, at the San Jose Center.

Over at Santana Row, finish your holiday shopping at the boutiques, or find the perfect handmade gift at the pop-up Holiday Makers Market on December 11th.

Then head across the road to the mysterious Winchester House, which is decorated in Victorian style for Christmas. The daily tours include holiday music and decor in honor of the season.

During December, families also love Great America’s Winterfest, featuring fun events to celebrate the holidays. 

Winterfest has something for all ages with over 60 rides and attractions, dazzling light displays, and fun, festive performances.

Read our full guide to the best things to do in San Jose.

Where to Stay in San Jose

Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake is Southern California’s winter playground, with skiing, snowboarding, tubing, and bobsledding on the famous Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain.

Not far from the city of Los Angeles, Big Bear is a fun getaway to the snow and has plenty of holiday events to welcome the start of the season.

Big Bear and Summit ski resorts are open throughout the Christmas period, so this is a great time to hit the slopes.

Big Bear Lake Christmas

Christmas Activities in Big Bear Lake

Parents can take their kids to meet Mr and Mrs Claus at Santa’s Village in Big Bear each weekend until December 19th. 

On December 5th, head to Chirp Nature Center for hot cocoa and caroling at 5 pm

Animal lovers can support the Grateful Heart Animal Sanctuary at their annual fundraiser event on December 18th and 19th. It features holiday music, decorations, pictures with Santa, hayrides, and more. 

Another cool event for kids from Gold Rush Mining Co. is Jingle Gems and Geodes, running throughout December. Pan for gold, crack open snowball geodes and post your letter to Santa.

Where to Stay in Big Bear Lake

Newport Beach

This laidback Orange County beach town pulls out all the stops for the holiday season with a magical boat parade and stunning Christmas tree.

Shop in style, dine out on a sunny patio surrounded by festive decor, and enjoy the lights on California’s southern coast.

Newport Beach Christmas - lighted boat parade

Christmas Activities in Newport Beach

California’s largest and oldest lighted boat parade takes place this year on December 15th to 19th on Newport Harbor. 

The parade of beautifully decorated boats has been taking place annually at Newport Harbor for 113 years.

Sit and enjoy the show at a harborside restaurant, or book a cruise and view the event from the water.

Check out the 90’ Christmas tree at the open-air shopping center, Fashion Island, where you can also get your last-minute shopping done at Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales.

With shopping finished, relax on the outdoor patio at Farmhouse restaurant in Roger’s Gardens, a holiday boutique selling stunning decor.

Where to Stay in Newport Beach

Skyforest

The tiny community of Skyforest in the San Bernardino Mountains is famous for its California Christmas theme park, Santa’s Village.

Opened just weeks before Disneyland in 1955, the whimsical park has survived bankruptcy and wildfires over the years. 

Today, it’s a year-round adventure park but the best time to visit is Christmas when it becomes a winter wonderland.

Visit Santa and Mrs Claus in their Southern California home for a magical North Pole village experience, then stay for the fun outdoor activities offered at Skypark.

Christmas Activities in Skyforest

Skypark offers mountain biking trails, hiking, archery, rock climbing and bouldering, pedal cars, zip line, roller skating, fly fishing, and more, all included in the price of admission.

You can also skate on the park’s open-air rink in a beautiful alpine setting in the winter. Smaller kids will love the nature-inspired playground and, of course, visiting Santa.

You’ll find Santa at his house in Santa’s Village, at the heart of the park. 

Cookie decorating, night walks through an enchanted lit-up forest, puppet shows, and character meets are all offered at this time of year as well.

Where to Stay in Skyforest

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is absolutely stunning in the winter. It’s less crowded than during the summer, and the trails are peaceful. 

This year, spend Christmas in nature, walking among giant sequoias in the snow.

There are also plenty of fun winter activities on offer at Badger Pass, including skiing and snowboarding. 

Yosemite Christmas

Christmas Activities in Yosemite National Park

For an old-fashioned Christmas in California, stay at Tenaya Lodge

Guests can participate in several traditional Christmas activities, including decorating a gingerbread house, savoring Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, or just cozying up in front of the fire.

In the heart of Yosemite Valley, under the shadow of Half Dome, Curry Village also has an ice rink during the winter season. Skate away, then warm up with a hot chocolate by the fire pit.

If fresh snow has fallen, you can ski, snowboard, or tube down the mountain at Badger Pass Ski Area. Yosemite is a great destination year-round, but it’s especially magical at Christmas time.

Although suspended for this year, the Bracebridge Dinner at Ahwahnee is a unique Yosemite tradition. Part performance, part Yuletide feast, there’s nothing else quite like it.

Read our guides to the best things to do in Yosemite, two days in Yosemite itinerary, and the ultimate San Francisco to Yosemite road trip.

Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park

Ferndale

In the far north of California, between groves of ancient redwoods and the Pacific Ocean, is the Victorian town of Ferndale. 

This is quintessential small-town America, and if it hasn’t been in a Hallmark movie yet, it certainly deserves to be.

During the holiday season, the residents try to outdo one another with their lights for the annual festive lights competition, while America’s tallest living Christmas tree twinkles at the end of Main Street. 

It’s a perfectly charming spot to spend Christmas.

Ferndale Christmas

Christmas Activities in Ferndale

Don’t miss the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in early December, when the town gathers to celebrate the start of the holiday season. Homemade cookies and hot cocoa are passed around to attendees.

Ferndale has a surprisingly vibrant entertainment scene for a small, remote community, especially in December. 

Restaurants in town frequently host musicians, and you can catch a live performance at The Olde Steeple most weekends.

Brass bands playing holiday favorites stroll down Main Street on Saturdays in December, bringing Christmas cheer to shoppers. 

There’s even a lighted tractor parade. The one-of-a-kind celebration takes place on December 19th this year.

Where to Stay in Ferndale

FAQs About Christmas in California

FAQs about California Christmas

Where are the best places to have a White Christmas in California?

Nowhere is guaranteed, but Tahoe is your best bet. There’s a good chance of snow in Yosemite, Big Bear, and Mammoth Lakes each year as well. 

Read our guide to the best places to find snow in California.

What is there to do in California at Christmas?

Skiing, surfing, shopping, eating, swimming, hiking… it would be a lot easier to write a list of what there isn’t to do for Christmas in California.

What is the most Christmassy town in California?

Nevada City and Ferndale consistently make it to the top of the list for their events, small-town charm, and community spirit.

Is December a good time to visit California?

California is a big place with many different climates. Whether you love sunshine and palm trees or skiing and snow, there will be something for you.

Where can you find the best Christmas lights in California?

Mission Inn in Riverside is said to have the best lights in California, but you could also check out the lighted boat parade in Newport Beach or the lighted tractor parade in Ferndale.

Are there Christmas markets in California?

Nevada City, San Francisco, and Sacramento have some great Christmas markets worth visiting.


Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah McDonald headshot

Sarah McDonald

Sarah McDonald is a travel writer based in the Bay Area. She writes for the national parenting website Red Tricycle and on her own family travel blog, Tiny Trailblazers. She loves exploring California’s outdoors and has a weakness for a national park gift shop.


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Christmas in California: 17 Places to Get Into the Holiday Spirit

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