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14 Fabulous December Events in California

Close out your 2018 with tamales, sleigh rides, and European-style night markets

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Posted 3 years agoby Katrina Hunt

Come to California during the last month of the year and snowflakes may well be falling on the ski slopes—but there is plenty of seasonal cheer all over the state, from food and music festivals to holiday events (including these 17 Lights Displays) and unique experiences at some of the biggest attractions—like the San Diego Zoo, the Rose Bowl, and Yosemite National Park. Here are 14 excellent ways to cap off your 2018 in California:


Dec. 1–2: Indio International Tamale Festival

Tamales are a staple of Mexican-style holiday eating, and this festival south of Palm Springs has contests for both recipes and tamale-eating, as well as live music, kids activities, and a car show.


Dec. 1–28: Napa Valley Santa Train


Most of the regular excursions on the Napa Valley Wine Train focus on local Cabernets and the like, but this kid-focused, hour-plus ride to the “North Pole” features hot cocoa, cookies, and visits with Santa, along with games and sing-alongs. Grown-ups, meanwhile, can also book the bubbly-focused New Year’s Eve Dinner Train.




Dec. 1–29: Santa Barbara Night Market


The Paseo Nuevo outdoor shopping area off State Street is adopting the traditions of European Christmas markets this month—with crafts, food, drinks, and live music. The market will run on Thursdays through Sundays from 4–10 p.m.




Dec. 2: Snow Leopard Festival, Santa Barbara Zoo


See majestic white cats at this charming Santa Barbara zoo’s annual festival, and take a spin on their seasonal sledding hill, stocked with 80 tons of snow. This year’s special guests include reindeer Cookie and Peppermint, who will be guests at the Zoo through New Year’s Day.



Dec. 7–8: December Nights Balboa Park


Evenings get bright in San Diego’s sprawling city park, with illuminated displays, live music, dancing, and puppet shows—but also with a cool opportunity: admission is free to the park’s many museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and Fleet Science Center.




Dec. 9–23, select dates: Nevada City Victorian Christmas


The quaint Gold Country town embraces its 19th-century architecture and ambience: twinkling lights and gas lamps line the streets, and carolers and bagpipers entertain while you peruse the booths of crafts, dolls, jewelry, and food. Dickensian cosplay is encouraged, too: Check out their easy tips on dressing Victorian.



Dec 10–22, select dates: Bracebridge Dinners, Yosemite National Park


The stone-and-timber Ahwahnee Hotel channels Christmas Past in grand style with its annual, 18th-century-style dinner show. The star, in theory, is “Lord Neville of Bracebridge,” a character originally created by Washington Irving, but the old-world menu (including duck liver mousse, burgundy beef tenderloin, plum pudding, and wassail) threatens to steal the show.




Dec. 13: Walk of the Inns, Palm Springs


Fans of architecture and design will love this self-guided walking tour through boutique hotels and inns in Palm Springs, including Mediterranean-style villas, adobe inns, and mid-century modern gems. The tours begin at the Palm Springs Art Museum.




Dec. 14–31: Jungle Bells, San Diego


The San Diego Zoo finds new life in the evening at this annual after-dark event with light displays, 4-D movie screenings of The Polar Express, live performers, and a focus on winter-loving animals. Don’t miss Dr. Zoolittle’s animal-themed telling of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.



Dec. 15–16: Solvang JuleFest


Every weekend leading up to Christmas offers something festive in this Central Coast town known for its Scandinavian flavor. The weekend of December 7–8 has the annual Julefest tree lighting and parade, while Dec. 15–16 offers the live Nativity scene and the Skål Stroll, with tastings at more than a dozen local wineries and breweries, along with samples of traditional Gløgg.




Dec. 16–24: Las Posadas at Olvera Street in L.A.


This downtown L.A. tradition goes back to 1930: Over the course of nine evenings, Olvera Street holds a procession of Mary, Joseph, and shepherds in seek of shelter for the night. Enjoy pan dulce and cups of hot champurrado and watch as the procession begins and ends at the Avila Adobe, L.A.’s oldest house.




Dec. 18–31: Holiday Events at Squaw Alpine


Snow season fun ramps up for the second half of December at this Lake Tahoe ski resort: Plan your days around horse-drawn sleigh rides, brunches with Santa, mini-train rides around an ice garden, or mountain outings with Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley. It doesn’t all end on New Year’s, either: evening Disco Tubing, with lights and music along tubing runs, begins Dec. 22 and runs until Feb. 23.

Dec. 28–31: Rose Parade Decorations and Equestfest, Pasadena


The days leading up to January 1’s Rose Parade and Rose Bowl are plenty festive in Pasadena. Watch horses perform at EquestFest, or put your name in to actually help with the finishing touches on parade floats—a great way to get a behind-the-scenes experience with this legendary event.

Dec. 29–31: Snowglobe Music Festival


Ring in the new year with this cutting-edge music festival in South Lake Tahoe, where puffy jackets trump hippie-style festival fashion. This year’s headliners include Above & Beyond, Diplo, Eric Prydz, Rezz, and RL Grime.


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