The final month of 2021 is offering plenty to celebrate. Holiday events, some of which had to sit out 2020, are back and making up for lost time—such as the stunning light displays of Riverside’s Mission Inn Festival of Lights, Illuminate SF Festival of Light in San Francisco, and Fresno’s Christmas Tree Lane. (For more seasonal inspiration, check out the latest episode of the California Now Podcast and this glistening listicle.)
All over California, December offers opportunities to enjoy decked-out theme parks and soak up the scenery of towns that excel at holiday spirit. Below are 22 more ways to make the most of the season this month in the Golden State.
Through Dec. 23: Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train
Ride through the streets of Santa Cruz on a vintage excursion railroad festooned with thousands of lights. Or go on one of the Holiday Tree Walks, which includes a ride to Bear Mountain on the Redwood Forest Steam Train to walk among decorated trees.
Through Dec. 30: WildLights at the Living Desert, Palm Desert
On select nights, this Greater Palm Springs zoo lights up with more than a million holiday lights, including an illuminated tunnel and life-size “lanterns” of giraffe, cheetahs, and other animals. This year’s festivities also include a socially distant Santa available for pictures. Advance timed-entry reservations required.
Through Dec. 31: Celebrate the Season in Beverly Hills
The city of Beverly Hills is pulling out all the stops this year: Beyond the glittering displays along Rodeo Drive, check out the holiday 3-D light show at Two Rodeo, the twinkling Beverly Hills sign at the Lily Pond, and the tunnel of lights plus a Walk-Through Ornament at Beverly Cañon Gardens. This year’s festivities also include Love Actually Live, a musical production based on the holiday movie, staged at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Through Dec 31: Sounds of the Season at Kearney Mansion, Fresno
Ooh and ahh at the decorated houses along Fresno’s Christmas Tree Lane, then tour the inside of the Kearney Mansion Museum & Gallery, filled with 15 trees, each decorated to represent a different Christmas carol. Sip hot cocoa and learn about the history behind these classic songs as well as that of the 19th-century Chateau Fresno, which farm developer M. Theo Kearney modeled after Château de Chenonceau in France’s Loire Valley. Come meet Santa on Dec. 4–5 or reserve a spot for the Holiday Tea on Dec. 11.
Through Dec. 31: Redding Garden of Lights
More than a million lights sparkle across Redding’s McConnell Botanical Gardens, a short walk from the iconic Sundial Bridge within Turtle Bay Exploration Park. Stroll through light tunnels and themed displays—such as Wintry Wildlife and Prismatic Pollinators—wave to the live reindeer and browse the gift shop and food trucks. Come on Dec. 31 and stay through 1 a.m. for the adult New Year’s Eve party with cocktails.
Through Jan. 1: Solvang JuleFest
Every weekend through New Year’s Day offers something festive in this Central Coast town known for its Scandinavian flavor. The weekend of Dec. 3 includes the annual tree lighting and parade, while the whole month offers activities such as the Solvang Holiday Food Tour or the Elf on a Shelf–style scavenger hunt known as the Nisse Adventure.
Through Jan. 2: Holidays at Filoli, Woodside
Explore the decorated—and fascinating—house and gardens of this 1917 country estate in San Mateo County, 30 miles south of San Francisco. See the colors of its 16-acre garden by daylight and settle in by the firepits with a warm drink. Next, check out the interior of the 56-room home—like its grand dining room, decorated in the style of the original owners, who were heirs of the Empire Gold Mine. Don’t miss the family room that reflects the family that lived here in the mid-20th century; note the sounds of Christmas hits and vintage commercials playing on the 1960s Zenith TV.
Through Jan. 2: The Elf on the Shelf’s Magical Holiday Journey, Pomona
This walk-through experience at Los Angeles County’s Pomona Fairplex tells a story about the famous elf by way of lit displays and a trolley ride. This year’s version of the crowd-pleasing attraction also features an ice-skating rink and a Christmas village with shopping and dining.
Dec. 3–5: Taste of December Nights Balboa Park
This year’s version of the San Diego park’s December Nights tradition will be a drive-through experience: Choose from more than 20 local food trucks and vendors, including the Filipino flavors of Gabina’s Cuisine, the Kenyan dishes of Rafikiz Foodz, and dessert boxes from the park’s beloved House of Pacific Relations International Cottages.
Dec. 4: Downtown Stockton Lighted Boat Parade
This parade returns for its 38th year, led as always by the Port of Stockton fireboat known as Sunrise. Watch from the north shore of downtown Stockton’s waterfront—for instance, near Banner Island Ballpark—or from the south shore near Weber Point and the waterfront warehouse.
Dec. 4: Festival of Lights Parade, Palm Springs
The acclaimed annual parade through downtown Palm Springs’s Palm Canyon Drive features light-bedazzled floats, cars, equestrians, and occasional celebrity sightings.
Dec. 4: Annual Lighted Boat Parade, Morro Bay
Eye-catching Morro Rock nearly gets upstaged at this annual event in San Luis Obispo County, where decorated yachts, fishing boats, and more vessels compete for prizes. Watch from along the Embarcadero or grab a seat at one of the waterfront restaurants and bars for great views.
Dec. 4–5: Indio International Tamale Festival
If you like your holiday treats savory instead of sweet, you’ll love this annual festival south of Palm Springs. Check out the contests for both recipes and tamale-eating, as well as live music, kids’ activities, and a car show.
Dec. 5–19: Nevada City Victorian Christmas
This quaint Gold Country town truly embraces its 19th-century architecture and ambience during the holiday season. Twinkling lights and gas lamps line the streets and—on select Sundays and Wednesdays—carolers and bagpipers entertain while you peruse booths of crafts, dolls, jewelry, and food. Dickensian cosplay is encouraged, too: Check out these easy tips on dressing Victorian.
Dec. 10–Jan. 2: Jungle Bells, San Diego
On select evenings, the San Diego Zoo hosts this annual after-dark event with light displays, holiday music, and 3-D projections; this year’s theme is “Aurora.” The event is free with regular admission.
Dec. 11: Marina Del Ray Holiday Boat Parade
This Los Angeles County boat parade starts with fireworks, followed by a lineup of decorated boats floating along the channel in Marina Del Rey. Watch the show from the community’s Fisherman’s Village or Burton Chace Park, or from one of the community’s waterfront restaurants.
Dec. 11–12: Huntington Harbour Boat Parade
Huntington Beach’s boat parade tradition started in the 1960s, and now showcases about 75 boats. Watch from Seabridge Park or the Huntington Harbour bridges.
Dec. 12: Santa Barbara Parade of Lights at the Harbor
Watch this elegant evening parade from downtown Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf. It kicks off with fireworks and ends as judges award prizes in five categories. During the afternoon, St. Nick will reportedly make an appearance at the City Pier’s Winter Wonderland area.
Dec. 12, 19: San Diego Bay Parade of Lights
This annual boat parade—held on consecutive Sunday evenings and featuring about 80 ships—skirts alongside downtown San Diego. This year’s procession, organized around a “12 Days of Christmas” theme, travels from Shelter Island to Seaport Village and then out to Coronado Island.
Dec. 15–23: The Fantasy of Lights Holiday Tours, San Luis Obispo
Take this seasonal tour of San Luis Obispo County—including festively lit communities in Paso Robles, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Maria. Sip a gourmet hot cocoa and eat cookies while you listen to holiday music or choose the grown-up version with cocktails and port brownies. Limited to parties of up to six. Call 805/608-0792 to reserve.
Dec. 18: Night of Lights, Mammoth Mountain
A few nights before the winter solstice, the Mammoth Lakes ski resort makes the most of the dark skies: Ride the free Village Gondola to Canyon Lodge, then watch fireworks and a torchlight parade.
Dec. 29: Rose Parade Events, Pasadena
The days leading up to Jan. 1’s Rose Parade and Rose Bowl in Pasadena are fabulously festive. Watch horses perform at Dec. 29’s Equestfest, and check out the marching bands at Bandfest. Or stick around after the parade to see the floats up close at Floatfest through Jan. 2.