Eight Cool Ways to Celebrate Christmas, California Style

Cable car decorated for Christmas in San Francisco
©Betsy Malloy Photography

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. 

You can watch a Christmas parade made entirely of boats or one full of tractors, see Santa Come ashore on a surfboard, walk or drive through over-the-top holiday lights, or visit some historic properties decked out for the season.

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 harbor boat parade. You can watch one of the biggest ones at the San Diego Harbor's Parade of Lights, or take in the super-popular Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade

In Northern California, try the Oakland/Alameda Estuary Lighted Yacht Parade of more than 100 lighted pleasure craft.

Christmas "Training"

In Santa Cruz, Roaring Camp Railroad runs a Holiday Lights Train. It leaves from the boardwalk on a short trip through town and back and is an especially festive, old-fashioned affair 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.

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. They also perform once every holiday season in at the Disney Concert Hall in LA.

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. It's one of the most fun ways to celebrate the holidays that you'll find anywhere in the state and the meal is a show in itself.

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 exuberant when it comes to outdoor light displays. Try the LA Zoo Lights which are described on the last page of the Griffith Park guide, go north of San Diego to Encinitas to the San Diego Botanic Garden, or take the Santa Barbara Trolley's lights tour, but plan ahead -this event sells out in early October.

In Silicon Valley, Vasona Park near Los Gatos hosts the drive-thru Fantasy of Lights in Vasona Park. Also well worth your time if you're in the area are the family-friendly rides and lighted displays at Gilroy Gardens.

The Huntington Harbor Cruise of Lights adds a nautical twist to seeing the Christmas lights. You can take a charming trip through the harbor's waterways past houses decorated with enough lights to make Las Vegas jealous.

Holidays in the Major Tourist Areas

To find out all the things that are going on in each major tourist area, use these guides:


    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!"

    1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.