If you’re spending any time in California with the kids during the holiday season, you need not rely on malls alone for meet-and-greets with Santa Claus. Across the Golden State, Saint Nick is known to make dramatic entrances as Surfing Santa—wearing board shorts and shades—or as Skiing Santa, zooming down the side of a mountain on skis or even a snowboard. Other Santa meet-and-greets connect you with local festivals, parades, and even an army of light-up snowmen in wine country. Check out these California-style Santas who bring an extra heaping of jolly to the holiday.
Napa Valley Wine Train
Mid-November through late December
For most of the year, the Napa Valley Wine Train offers a scenic ride and tasting experience through this famous stretch of wine country. During the holidays, though, a seasonally-festooned train takes kids and their parents on daily rides to Santa’s workshop, to uncover some Teddy bears that Saint Nick apparently misplaced. Rather than Cabernets, the onboard tastings focus on cookies, hot cocoa, and other treats. Parents, meanwhile, might want to come back in a few months for the Valentine’s Day Train, which features a multi-course dinner and a welcome taste of local sparkling wine.
Seaport Village, San Diego
In a city where flip-flops are year-round footwear, Santa can’t be weighed down by his heavy black boots. So when he arrives on a watercraft at this annual event at San Diego’s Seaport Village, Surfing Santa is rocking board shorts, flip-flops, and an all-season Hawaiian shirt. Give him your wish list or just pose with him next to his surfboard. The afternoon party at this festive shopping zone near downtown also includes a parade, kids crafts, and live street performers.
In Santa Cruz County, flying reindeer may be hard to come by, so Santa gets his horsepower, as it were, from reindeer with good rowing arms. At this event, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, Saint Nicholas comes ashore at Capitola Beach on a well-staffed outrigger canoe. Then, he’ll hear kids’ wish lists while relaxing in his beach chair.
Saturdays in December
The charming Central Coast town of Solvang embraces its Scandinavian heritage at the month-long JuleFest, which kicks off on the first Saturday of December with a VIP Candlelight Tour of Solvang, led by costumed, caroling-leading tour guides. Afterward, the red-clad dude with his own Nordic heritage greets the kids at Solvang Park. The third Saturday of festivities includes a nativity scene with live animals, musical accompaniment, and narration, along with the Solvang Wine and Beer Walk that visits more than a dozen local tasting rooms. On either weekend, indulge your sugar cravings along Solvang’s Sweet Treats Trail: an array of bakeries, wine stores, coffeehouses, and sweet shops where you can find chocolates, wines, and plenty of local Danish kringle and stollen.
Cornerstone Gardens, Sonoma
In 2004, the owner of Cornerstone Gardens—a collection of boutique wineries, shops, and tasting rooms in the town of Sonoma—bought a small army of decorative snowmen from a soon-to-close factory in Boston. Once he’d brought them back to Sonoma, he created a funny display that made it appear as if they’d been thrown across a road into a vineyard. (No worries: The plastic snowmen were not injured.) A holiday tradition was born, and now each year, the lit-up snowmen get arranged in a creative new formation. This year, will they be stacked vertically, lined up along a ski jump, or in some other intriguing configuration? Come find out at this free festival, which also features music, crafts, local cuisine, and wine and beer tastings. A live Santa reigns from his orange chair, listening to wishes and perhaps pardoning the embattled snowmen.
Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and more
This annual pub crawl—in which participants must dress as Santa—happens in select cities all over the world, but the versions in California promise to be some of the biggest (and perhaps balmiest). There’s nothing like streaming into a bar with all your Santa brethren and sistren, then, just as abruptly, quitting it for the next libation destination, united in your quest to bring holiday cheer to the world. See the SantaCon site for more cities and dates. If you decide to join in, just remember to adhere to the SantaCon code to be especially kind to kids, police, and bartenders.
Just a few nights before the winter solstice, the high season at Mammoth kicks off with this annual (and free) evening at Canyon Lodge. Certainly, the risk of a dark sky runs very low: Besides the live music, kids’ activities, and snowmobile rides, there will be a torchlight parade and fireworks. Cap it off by letting the kids meet Santa as well as Wooly, Mammoth’s lovably prehistoric mascot.
Santas likely outnumber the elves at this now-annual event at Mountain High, about 90 minutes from Los Angeles and Orange County. You can ski for free on this day when you make a small donation (of at least $20) to the eco-minded Protect Our Winters organization, founded by Olympic snowboarder Jeremy Jones. The only hitch: You also have to don a full Santa suit with beard and hat. Even if you don’t go as Santa yourself, you’d be hard-pressed not to get in the holiday spirit surrounded by freestyling St. Nicks.