In Orange County California, Christmas doesn't look like one of those old-fashioned greeting cards. Yes, neighborhoods put out their holiday lights displays, but Santa is more likely to arrive on a surfboard than in a sleigh, and he'll be wearing board shorts, not velvet and fur.
The best decorations in town may be in a theme park. And that local Christmas parade? It's as likely to happen on water as it is on land. It all seems normal to Californians.
But listening to Christmas music while driving in an open-top convertible on palm-lined streets is a novelty if you live in a colder climate. Instead of feeling disoriented and confused by it all, go to see how Californians find unique ways to celebrate in Orange County. It turns out to be one of the best places in the state to do that.
This guide will take you through some of the unique Christmas traditions in Orange County, point you toward some over-the-top light displays, and send you to some fun events to enjoy.
Newport Beach Harbor Parade
By far the most exciting holiday event in Orange County is the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade. Instead of motorized floats and marching bands, you'll see yachts, boats, and even tiny dinghies all glammed up in holiday lights, sailing past delighted onlookers.
Newport Beach's harbor parade is the largest in Southern California. More than 100 watercraft participate, each of them decked out in enough lights to almost turn night to day.
You can get all the details you need to attend and pick up some tips for your visit when you go to the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade Guide.
Huntington Beach Cruise of Lights
In Huntington Beach, the best holiday lights displays are on the multi-million-dollar homes set on artificial islands. The neighborhood goes all out, with decorations that range from simple white lights to extravagant spectacles created by professional lighting installers.
Here's the catch: Those displays face the water instead of the street. The effect is magical, with each home's sparkling lights doubled by its reflection in the water. The only way to get a good look is from a boat.
The annual Huntington Beach Cruise of Lights gives you a chance to do just that. You can find out more about it and pick up some first-hand tips in the Huntington Beach Cruise of Lights guide.
Surfing Santa Contest
This event happens in November, but it's Christmas all the way. Orange County surfers dress up like Santa Claus or other holiday-inspired characters to surf the waves at Salt Creek Beach near the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel.
It's a charity event to support Surfers Healing, a group that hosts free surf camps to introduce children with autism and their families to the therapeutic benefits of surfing.
The Surfing Santa Competition is held every year the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Christmas at Disneyland
Disneyland starts celebrating Christmas as soon as Halloween is over, with holiday decorations, seasonal food treats, and a holiday parade.
The Haunted Mansion takes on a "Nightmare Before Christmas" theme, and it's a small world also gets the holiday treatment. In fact, the Christmas season is the only time of year when you can enjoy the ride without getting that song stuck in your head.
You can get a lot more information — and insider tips on how to enjoy the holiday season — when you check out the guide to Disneyland at Christmas.
Holiday Lights and Drive Through Nativity Scenes
If you're looking for some festive holiday lighted homes in Orange County, these are your best bets:
Balboa Island Ring of Lights
Don't miss the bayfront Ring of Lights on Balboa Island in Newport Beach, where extravagant homes surrounding the harbor are lit from lawn to roof. To get there, start on Balboa Island, park your vehicle and take a walk around the waterfront on South and North Bayfront streets. The walk around the entire island is about a mile.
You can also drive out on the Balboa Peninsula to the Balboa Fun Zone, where you can see the lights from across the water.
Eagle Hills Neighborhood Lights Display
In the town of Brea, you can see more than a hundred homes with lighted displays in the Eagle Hills neighborhood around East Lambert Road and Sunflower Street. Set your GPS to 3010 Stearns Street to get close to that intersection. From there, you can quickly figure out where to go next.
Reviewers online love the Eagle Hills lights, saying "so many lights it doesn't stop" and "year after year this neighborhood never fails to impress." You can read more of their reviews and check out some helpful tips on Yelp.
Drive Through Nativity Scenes
You can also enjoy several drive-through nativity scenes in Orange County, with live actors and animals. Some also have a walk-through experience. You can find a list of them at So Cal Field Trips.
Winter Fest OC
They say it's SoCal's "ultimate" winter festival and they might be right. At this exuberant festival, they definitely bring winter to the OC Fairgrounds.
Forget about the warm weather outside. At this event, you can go ice skating, scoot down an ice slide, play in fresh snow blown in daily, or get lost in a snow maze. And that's only for starters. Don't miss the carnival rides, the world's largest walkthrough ornament or the largest rocking horse.
Of course, you can also visit Santa Claus and watch shows starring Thomas the Tank Engine, tribute bands, and Nick Jr's Paw Patrol. Check the schedule on their website.
Admission is charged. Parking is extra, and you will have to buy separate tickets for the carnival rides. You can buy tickets online and getting them ahead of time will save you money.
Knotts Merry Farm
The rest of the year it's Knotts Berry Farm, but around the holidays they change the name to "Merry." The lovable kid characters from the Peanuts comic strip put on a Christmas pageant, and Snoopy has an ice show. You can visit with Santa Claus or shop in the Christmas Crafts Village. It even snows in Ghost Town.
All the details for this year's fun are at the Knotts Merry Farm website.
Holiday Tea in Orange County
Afternoon tea is a fun way to celebrate the holidays, and Orange County has a couple of fun places to enjoy it.
The Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel celebrates the season with a Holiday Tea in their Raya restaurant in November and December. You can get details on their website.
The Disneyland Hotel also serves a holiday afternoon tea in Steakhouse 55. You can enjoy a pot of hot tea while you munch on scones, tea sandwiches, and petite sweets. Reservations are recommended, and you'll find all the details are on their website.
Sawdust Art Festival Winter Fantasy
The popular summer Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach makes an encore every holiday season. On weekends in November and December, the Sawdust Art Festival Winter Fantasy showcases more than 100 artists who create, display and sell their original creations.
There's also live holiday entertainment, outdoor cafes, art classes, a petting zoo, and— of course — a chance to visit Santa Claus.
Irvine Park Railroad's Christmas Train
At the Irvine Park Railroad, you can take a train straight to the North Pole. Once you get there, you can visit Santa Claus and then go back to the station to see Christmas lights and decorations and a magical “Tunnel of Lights.”