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Holiday 2021: Must-See Events in California

Get in the spirit with light displays, snow play, and all manner of holiday cheer

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Posted 8 days agoby Katrina Hunt

Twinkling lights, snowy landscapes, and plenty of hot cocoa. After taking a year off for the most part, many holiday events are returning for the 2021 season, and California is decking its proverbial halls from the mountains to the beaches. In the latest episode of the California Now Podcast, host Soterios Johnson chats with three insiders about festivities around the Golden State—some of which boast seriously creative twists.

Certainly, the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada create a winter wonderland this time of year. “It's really magical,” says Brendan Madigan, owner of sporting goods store Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City. “During the holidays, there's a tremendous amount to do.” Beyond skiing and snowboarding, he recommends snowshoeing for an easy way to find winter bliss. “You can just rent snowshoes for 20 or 30 bucks—and if you can walk, you can snowshoe. Once those snowshoes are on your feet, you can enjoy the scenic beauty of the area.”

Sonoma County, meanwhile, offers its own take on a country-style Christmas, according to Heather Irwin, dining editor at Sonoma Magazine.

“We have small-town traditions—the local Christmas tree lighting, tractor parades, and caroling,” she tells Johnson. In Petaluma, Irwin suggests walking along the riverfront to see festively decorated boats. Head to Sebastopol to browse the Christmas tree farm and sip a ginger hot toddy at Graton’s Underwood Bar & Bistro. Or, visit Santa Rosa and do your own version of A Charlie Brown Christmas by skating at Snoopy's Home Ice, the rink next to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, devoted to the creator of the Peanuts gang. “There's a really fun little cafe there called the Warm Puppy Café,” Irwin says, “and you can get a great hot chocolate.”

Next, Johnson chats with Vincenzo Giammanco, founder of the Snow N Glow Holiday Festival in Ventura and Del Mar—two beachside events that bring Christmas to the coast. The event debuted in 2020 as a drive-through lights display, but this year organizers have added an illuminated walking path plus a 100-foot tubing hill and a snow play area, both decked out with fresh, machine-made snow.

“We'll be able to make snowmen, snow angels, and go snow tubing,” says Giammanco. “When I went down this hill I lit up like a five-year-old—I couldn't wait to run back up and do it again. It's nice to be able to get outside and just enjoy the holidays again.”

If you can’t get enough of twinkling lights, you have your choice of events up and down the Golden State. You can easily build a getaway around visiting one of these towns, listed north to south:

Mendocino

Set aside a weekend evening to enjoy the Festival of Lights at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (Nov. 26–Dec. 19), when the pathways of the Mendocino preserve are lined with lights and displays. This year’s installation will be set along a one-way loop, and advance tickets are required.

San Francisco

From Nov. 25–Jan. 1, the Illuminate SF Festival of Light features more than 40 light art installations around  San Francisco—located from Golden Gate Park to the Castro and Yerba Buena neighborhoods. Check out the map of installations, including 12 on the Light Art Trail.

Fresno

Many cities have that one neighborhood that excels at holiday lights, but Fresno’s Fig Garden neighborhood has turned into Christmas Tree Lane nearly every year since 1920. Drive the two-mile, one-way stretch along North Van Ness Boulevard from Dec. 1–25 to see hundreds of brightly decorated homes.

Riverside

The Mission Inn Festival of Lights is a true showstopper, with literally millions of lights festooning the grounds of Riverside’s grand dame resort. You don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to explore the free festival, but you’ll likely be tempted to stay just to bask in its glow. Runs from Nov. 26–Jan. 6.

Newport Beach

The glittering lineup of yachts, sailboats, and kayaks have made the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade legendary since the early 1900s. This year’s parade runs from Dec. 15–19, and its route goes past Newport Beach spots such as Lido Isle and Balboa Island. On select nights from Dec. 3–Jan. 2, you can also take evening cruises that glide past more decorated boats and homes.

Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano

At the southern end of Highway 1, the neighboring Orange County towns of Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano offer a two-for-one holiday hotspot. Lasting until early January, Dana Point’s Holidays at the Harbor features more than 700,000 LED lights on displays such as a Candy Cane Lane, lighted palm trees, and a giant whale sculpture—appropriate for an official Whale Heritage Site. Come between Dec. 10–12 for extra nighttime scenery at the Dana Point Harbor Boat Parade of Lights.

In neighboring San Juan Capistrano, the town’s historic mission celebrates Capistrano Lights with a tree lighting every evening from Dec. 4–30. Evenings typically include live music, sweet treats, and the opportunity to place a candle near the large nativity scene in the mission’s Great Stone Church ruins.

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