Nine Cool Ways to Celebrate Christmas, California Style

California Christmas Traditions Abound

Cable car decorated for Christmas in San Francisco
••• 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.

See It Now: fHere's What California Looks Like at Christmas

  • 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 in early October. 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 at the Disney Concert Hall in LA.
  • 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 historic 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.

Holidays in the Major Tourist Areas


  • Hearst Castle decorates for the holidays and offers a Holiday Twilight Tour mid December thru early January.
  • 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!"


    1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.