In a place with more palms than snow, stereotypical images of Christmas just don't work. It's tough 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.
You can watch a Christmas parade made entirely of boats or tractors, see Santa Claus come ashore on a surfboard, walk through or drive past over-the-top holiday lights, or visit some historic properties decked out for the season.
Watch Harbor Christmas Parades
Imagine an old-fashioned Christmas parade. Substitute decorated and lighted boats for the motorized floats, and you've got a harbor boat parade.
In Northern California, Oakland/Alameda Estuary Lighted Yacht Parade features more than 100 lighted pleasure craft.
Go On Christmas Train Rides
In Santa Cruz, Roaring Camp Railroad runs a Holiday Lights Train. It leaves from the boardwalk on a short trip through town and back with live music and a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
You can also take a Polar Express trip in Sacramento, but you'll have to plan ahead—this event sells out in early October.
Santa also takes a ride with his friends at Railtown 1897 State Park, November through December.
Enjoy Christmas Concerts
The a capella singing 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.
Chanticleer also performs once every holiday season at the Disney Concert Hall in LA.
Go to Moaning Cavern in the Sierra Foothills for a truly unique holiday concert, held in the cave's main chamber. Christmas carols take on a new beauty when sung in the acoustically rich environment.
See Holiday Light Displays
Southern Californians get especially exuberant when it comes to outdoor light displays. Try the LA Zoo Lights or the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas. You can also tour lights on the Santa Barbara Trolley's lights tour, but plan far ahead to do it —they sell out by early October.
In Silicon Valley, Vasona Park near Los Gatos hosts the drive-thru Fantasy of Lights in Vasona Park.
The Huntington Harbor Cruise of Lights adds a nautical twist to seeing the Christmas lights. You can take a pleasant boat ride through the harbor's waterways past houses decorated with enough lights to make Las Vegas jealous.
The Mission Inn Festival of Lights has been a local favorite for more than two decades. And the Enchanted Forest of Light at Descanso Gardens on the northern edge of the LA metro area near Pasadena is also popular.
If you're looking for some lights to see somewhere else, the California Christmas Lights website covers hundreds of houses and neighborhoods in northern and central California.
More Christmas Events
Bracebridge Dinners: Yosemite's historic hotel dining room transforms into a 17th-century English manor for a three-hour pageant of classic carols, Renaissance rituals, music, and food. You'll share the celebration with Squire Bracebridge and his family, their servants, the Lord of Misrule, minstrels, and other characters. And the meal is a show in itself.
Surfin' Santas: In most cities and towns, Santa arrives in a sleigh. Along the California coast, he arrives on a surfboard instead. Decked out in a red wetsuit with all the white trimmings, the Surfin' Santa usually comes ashore on Thanksgiving weekend. You might see him in Capitola, just south of Santa Cruz or at Seaport Village in San Diego.
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.
Hearst Castle: The castle is decorated for the holidays and offers a Holiday Twilight Tour from mid-December thru early January.
Oakland's historic Mountain View Cemetery: The cemetery hosts a Circle of Lights every December, with holiday lights and activities.
Historic adobe homes: Located within Monterey Historical Park, these open in early December for candlelit tours called Christmas in the Adobes.