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67 San Diego Holiday Traditions You Don't Want to Miss

'Tis the season for fa-la-la fun in San Diego


Published:

Illustration by Tammy White

Haul out the holly—and surfin’ Santas, Swedish meatballs, and beachfront ice skating! While the rest of the country is frozen, San Diegans take to the bays and parks (usually in short sleeves and flip-flops) for some of the most unique holiday experiences, whether you celebrate a holiday or not. We’ve rounded up all the local things you did as a kid that we hope you’ll carry on—either with your own kids or as a kidlike adult. Take it from two former Rockettes (amateurs, that is!), ’tis the season to kick up your heels and enjoy those December Nights.

 

No. 1

December Nights

December Nights

Although this event gets bigger and more crowded every year, December Nights, née Christmas on the Prado, still has a special place in our holiday hearts. We go for the classics like Swedish meatballs at the international cottages, glogg in the International Spirit Garden, the tree-decorating contest presented by the San Diego Floral Association, and the life-size Nativity display in the Organ Pavilion. And don’t miss Santa’s sleigh extending from the Plaza de Panama to the Organ Pavilion.
December 2, 3–11 p.m., and December 3, noon–11 p.m.

 

No. 2

San Diego Bay Parade of Lights

Sure, NYC has the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Pasadena has its roses. But we have the Parade of Lights, now in its 45th year. Dozens of locals deck their sailboats and yachts with tinsel, holly, and more for this nautical spin on a traditional holiday parade. The route loops from Shelter Island to the Coronado Ferry Landing, allowing for ample viewing spots along the way. Bring a lawn chair and some (spiked) hot cocoa. Better yet, if you have a sea vessel, join on in.
December 11 and 18, 5 p.m.

 

No. 3

Bowl Games

The city hosts two college bowl games, the Poinsettia Bowl (December 21) and the Holiday Bowl (December 27), both held at Qualcomm Stadium. The Poinsettia Bowl features a team from the Mountain West Conference (this year it’s BYU); the Holiday Bowl pits a Pac-12 against a Big Ten team. The latter gets its own balloon parade, which is touted as America’s largest. See the towering balloons, college cheerleaders, and big bands as they travel from the County Administration Center down Harbor Drive, starting at 10 a.m.

 

No. 4

Coronado Snow Mountain

This event coincides with Coronado’s holiday parade, which starts a few hours after Santa arrives via ferry. There’s fun of all kinds, from arts and crafts to live music. But the main attraction is the artificial snow mountain, where kids can sled and play, typically on a warm San Diego afternoon, right beside the bay.
December 2, 3 p.m.

 

No. 5

Garrison Street

Rumors circulate, but no one really knows how this Point Loma version of Candy Cane Lane came about. And yet, every year around Thanksgiving the lights go up and don’t dim until after the New Year. To best view the lighting extravaganza, park near Garrison Street and walk through the various driveways and front yards on display. #XmasLightGoals
Also see: Jingle Bell Hill (Pepper Drive Lights), El Cajon; Christmas Circle, Chula Vista; Candy Cane Lane, Poway

 

No. 6

Outdoor Ice-Skating Rinks

Liberty Station

Baby, it’s cold out... on the ice. Revisit a childhood pastime at one of the city’s temporary alfresco rinks. Ice skate at Hotel del Coronado’s Skating by the Sea through January 2; Hilton Bayfront's Skate by the Bay through January 2; Liberty Station’s Fantasy on Ice through January 8; and the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe’s rink with s’mores and carolers through January 4.

 

Super Tradition

No. 7

Hotel del Coronado  

For storybook holiday memories, there really is no better place than the Hotel Del. From its beachfront ice-skating rink and Santa brunches to its 26-foot tree in the lobby and the 100,000 twinkling lights outside, Coronado’s grand dame does it right. Every year the hotel picks a theme and decorates accordingly. This year’s is “A Season to Sparkle.” They also release a special limited-edition ornament, which makes a great gift for out-of-town relatives or Mom.

Editor’s tip: Santa makes a one-night guest appearance every year at the Del’s annual Holiday Festival. get there early (starting at 3 p.m.) for a fast pass to return at a specific time later that night, and avoid waiting for hours to get that dreamy photo with Saint Nick and your kid in front of the magical resort.
November 30

Fun Fact: In 1904, the Hotel Del debuted the world’s first outdoor electrically lit Christmas tree. The evergreen still stands today, just outside the Crown Ballroom near the main entrance.

 

Nos. 8-17

Tree Lightings and Parades

Julian’s Country Tree Lighting
Main Street
November 26, 2 p.m.

Coronado Holiday Parade
Orange Avenue to Rotary Plaza
December 2, 6 p.m., tree lighting to follow

Little Italy’s Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
India Street
December 3, 4–8 p.m.

Holiday Tree Lighting and Winter Wonderland Festival
California Center for the Arts, Escondido
December 3, 3 p.m.

Encinitas Holiday Parade
Coast Highway 101, from D to J streets
December 3, 5:30 p.m.

Ocean Beach Holiday Parade
Newport Avenue
December 3, tree lighting precedes parade at 5 p.m.

North Park Toyland Parade
University Avenue
December 3, 11 a.m.–1 p.m. festival begins at 10 a.m.

La Jolla Christmas Parade and Holiday Festival
Prospect Street and Girard Avenue
December 4, 1:30–5 p.m.

Gaslamp Holiday Pet Parade
Hilton Gaslamp Park
December 11, 3 p.m.

Holiday Bowl Parade
North Harbor Drive
December 27, 10 a.m.

 

No. 18

Midnight Mass

And now a quick pause for a more somber and sacred way to celebrate. For an iconic experience, try midnight mass at the Immaculata at USD or Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the oldest Catholic church in California. Get there early to find a seat and enjoy the candlelight and caroling. Bonus: These days, most traditional midnight masses actually start around 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Check parish websites for scheduling.

 

No. 19

Real Reindeer

During the holidays, you can find Santa at almost any mall in America, but you have to look a little harder to find live reindeer. Luckily, two of them take up residence at SeaWorld’s Christmas Village every year. The theme park’s other festivities include carolers, a breakfast with Santa and Shamu, and Southern California’s largest Christmas tree, at 320 feet tall—a local tradition since 1969.
November 19–January 1

 

No. 20

Hanukkah Happening

The Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center does its 32nd annual bash with shopping, crafts, games, and prizes. There’s kosher and dairy food, but tell the kids to wait until after the jumpy jubilee to start eating.
December 11, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.

 

No. 21

Gingerbread Competitions

Extreme edible home makeover! The Omni La Costa Resort & Spa’s annual gingerbread competition kicked off on November 26 and winners will be announced on December 3, but the masterpieces remain on display through December 30. At the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, browse gingerbread McMansions during the Gingerbread City Gala benefiting the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County, November 29. The Park Hyatt Aviara’s recently hired pastry chef, Christophe Rull, is eschewing gingerbread houses for a 250-pound chocolate train inside a 10-foot inflatable snow globe. Yum!

 

No. 22

Menorah Lighting at UTC

Every year, Westfield UTC partners with Chabad Center of University City to host a menorah lighting, complete with entertainment and snacks. The event will take place in front of Forever 21.
December 27, 6–7:30 p.m.

 

No. 23

Polar Plunges

If you like a good dare, or just like cold water, the Coronado Masters Association will hold their 26th Annual Christmas Eve Day Swim on Coronado’s North Beach. The La Jolla Cove Swim Club hosts a members-only New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge and Chili Potluck at the Shores. In Del Mar, try the Penguin Plunge—it’s free and open to the public with coffee, juice, and donuts afterward at the 17th Street Beach Safety Center on January 1.

 

No. 24

Julian Country Christmas

This town puts us in the spirit! Even if you missed Julian’s Country Christmas on November 26 (with a live Nativity, tree lighting, music, and more), every day is festive. Walk Main Street, go see the snow, buy an apple pie, and warm up with some hot cider.

 

No. 25

Kwanzaa

Every year the WorldBeat Cultural Center in Balboa Park throws SD’s biggest Kwanzaa event. Join the 36th celebration on four of the seven nights, free to the public, featuring live performances, poetry readings, a drum call, and traditional African libations and food.
December 26-29

 

No. 26

SantaCon

SantaCon is a convention—er, costumed pub crawl—that takes place every year in cities around the world. It’s huge in NYC, with thousands of participants wearing full Santa suits. It’s catching on here, too. San Diego’s Gaslamp SantaCon is December 10, starting at Atomic, 7–9:30 p.m. before heading to Altitude at the Marriott Gaslamp. OB and Hillcrest will bring the jolly and Santas too.
Dates TBD, santacon.info

 

Holiday Classes

No. 27

Weidners Gardens Succulent Wreath Class
Encinitas, December 3
10 a.m., $65

No. 28

Armstrong Garden Centers Santa Barbara Wreath Make & Take
Various locations, December 4
9 a.m., $40

No. 29

Adelaide’s Holiday Greens and Tablescaping Classes
La Jolla December 4, 10, 11
Times vary, $40–$75

No. 30

Venissimo holiday wines and cheese
Liberty Station, December 5
6–7:30 p.m., $50

No. 31

Makers Arcade Holiday Fair
Broadway Pier, December 10
11 a.m.-5 p.m., $5 entry fee

No. 32

Sur la Table Cookie Decorating Workshops
Fashion Valley, December 10, 14, 16, 18
Times vary, $69

 

No. 33

Cut Down Your Own Tree 

A tree from Home Depot is so ordinary. Why not channel your inner Clark Griswold and chop down your own? The satisfaction alone just might make your Christmas. Here are five spots, albeit a little removed from the open wilderness, where you can wield a saw. Timberrrrrr! Most farms open the day after Thanksgiving.

Family Christmas Tree Farm, 300 Pepper Drive, El Cajon  
Hay rides, saws provided

Pine Tree Acres, 620 West Haverford Road, Ramona  
Hay and pony rides, plus a hay maze, saws provided   

House Evergreen Forest, 3036 North Victoria Drive, Alpine
Free boughs and garlands

Julian Christmas Tree Ranch, 1464 Highway 78, Julian
Guilt-free cuttings taken from a living tree

Highland Valley Christmas Tree Farm, 18425 Highland Valley Road, Ramona  
You choose, they cut

 

Shopping

No. 34

City Lights

If you need a little Christmas right this very minute—and it’s July—head on over to City Lights, where it’s Christmas 365 days a year. The 40,000-square-foot superstore stocks ornaments, artificial trees, collectibles, and so much more. Happy shopping!
1212 Knoxville Street, Bay Park

 

No. 35

Knorr Candle Shop

Tucked behind a stand of trees on Via de la Valle is a beeswax farm and shop that has remained in the Knorr family for four generations. That’s right—they’ve been making candles on the premises since 1928. Inside the store is an explosion of candles, ornaments, wreaths, stockings, and decor from Knorr and other local merchants, and they’re open seven days a week.
14906 Via de la Valle, Del Mar

 

No. 36

Bazaar del Mundo Shops

Diane Powers’s eclectic Mexican goods offer a dose of color and culture to traditional holiday decor and gifts. The store begins stocking ornaments, Nativity sets, and more in early November. And don’t forget to have any gifts wrapped with the shop’s signature woven ribbons and bows (free with a purchase of $35 or more).
4133 Taylor Street, Old Town

 

No. 37

Editor’s tip 

“For as long as I can remember, my mom has made a wreath decorated with tin ornaments from Bazaar del Mundo. it’s one of my favorite holiday traditions. The bright colors are so much more unique than a typical wreath with pinecones.” —Kimberly Cunningham

 

No. 38

Christmas in the Valley

Bates Nut Farm is not just for pumpkins! It also hosts an annual community event, with craft and resale vendors and Santa arriving via fire engine (or a heli when he
can make it happen).
December 2 and 3; 15954 Woods Valley Road, Valley Center

 

Toy Drives

No. 39

Embrace-a-Family Jewish Family Service
TBD locations in Encinitas and Kearny Mesa
December 11

No. 40

Adopt-a-Family and Holiday Toy Drive
Crisis House Inc., El Cajon
Through December 16

No. 41

San Diego Chargers Toys for Tots
Naval Marine Corps Reserve or San Diego Fire Department, South San Diego County
Through December 16

No. 42

Home Start
City Heights
Through December 16

 

Nos. 43-52

Santa Sightings

North Pole Limited
Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association, La Mesa
November 25–December 17, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Surfin’ Santa
Seaport Village
November 26, 1–5 p.m.

Holiday Festival
Hotel del Coronado
November 30, 4 p.m.

Annual Christmas in the Valley
Bates Nut Farm
December 3

“Santa by the Sea” and tree lighting
L’Auberge Amphitheater, Del Mar
December 4, 3–5 p.m.

Breakfast with Santa
Neiman Marcus
December 10 and 17

Jungle Bells
San Diego Zoo
December 9–January 2

Fashion Valley
Through December 23

Westfield UTC
Through December 24

Westfield Mission Valley
Through December 24

Tweet or instagram your Santa photos and use the hashtag #SantaSDM. Three winners will receive a $50 gift card to one of our favorite restaurants.

 

Theater

No. 53

White Christmas

It might not be the original cast (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen), but San Diego Musical Theatre’s annual production of White Christmas at Spreckels Theatre is just as loveable. Expect all the classic songs from the movie, like “Sisters” and “Blue Skies,” as well as the namesake Irving Berlin ballad.
November 25–December 4

 

No. 54

A Christmas Carol

For the third consecutive year, Dickens’s novella will be retold at Cygnet Theatre, which puts its own spin on the classic tale with an original score and puppetry. There’s a reason this story continues to be produced. Its timeless themes of family and forgiveness are at the very core of the Christmas spirit.
November 22–December 24

 

No. 55

Lamb’s Players Festival of Christmas

Performed in the cozy, intimate Lamb’s Players Theatre, it’s the perfect afternoon activity to avoid the masses at Hotel Del. This year’s production is The Angel’s Arms. Set in 1860, the musical follows a novelist looking for inspiration. He checks into an inn and gets an unexpected dose of Christmas magic.
December 2–24

 

No. 56

An American Christmas: A 1916 Feast & Celebration

Dinner theater, festively upgraded! The US Grant Hotel hosts Lamb’s Players’ 25th annual production, which kicks off with hors d’oeuvres in the Palm Court, followed by a four-course holiday meal and Champagne toast in the Presidential Ballroom—all while being entertained by actors in character from a century ago. Splendid!
December 14–24

 

No. 57

CCT’s Traditions of Christmas

Why fly all the way to NYC for the Rockefeller Center extravaganza when you can catch a strikingly similar version in Southeast San Diego? The show includes holiday-themed vignettes with popular songs, Rockette-style dancers, and a living Nativity scene with an actual camel.
Lincoln Performing Arts Center, December 16–18 and 20–23

 

Super Tradition

No. 58

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! 

It really would not be Christmas without the Grinch at The Old Globe. Now in its 19th year, this production is wonderful for kids, with whimsical costumes, music, and a heartfelt message that never gets old.
Through December 26

Editor’s tip: On December 10, there will be a special performance for children with autism. During this show, loud noises, flashing lights, and other jarring effects are kept to a minimum.

Fun Fact: Vanessa Hudgens once starred as Cindy-Lou Who at The Old Globe before graduating to High School Musical fame.

 

No. 59

Mannheim Steamroller

This train left the station in 1984 and hasn’t slowed down since. Whether or not you’re a fan, you can’t say “Mannheim” without that new-agey “Deck the Halls” tune popping into your head. The 32nd anniversary Christmas tour rolls into the Civic Theatre December 28.

 

No. 60

San Diego Symphony’s Noel Noel

The San Diego Master Chorale performs popular seasonal music with Broadway veteran Brian Stokes Mitchell; Copley Symphony Hall, December 16–18. Their one-hour version, the Family Holiday Concert, is December 18 at 2 p.m., and guest-stars Santa Claus. This year only at Copley: Home Alone plays on three screens with a live orchestral accompaniment, December 2 at 8 p.m. And all the way from Austria, the world-renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir arrives December 4 at the Jacobs Music Center.

 

No. 61-67

The Nutcracker

This popular holiday ballet is produced in every theater by every dance company every December. And still, every year we go “nuts” for it. Here’s where to see it again (and again):

Meet the twin ballerinas starring in City Ballet's production of The Nutcracker. Read more »

City Ballet: Spreckels Theatre, Downtown
December 9–23

California Ballet: San Diego Civic Theatre, Downtown
December 10–24

Scripps Performing Arts Academy: The Fairmont Grand Del Mar
December 3, 4, 10, 11

San Diego Civic Youth Ballet: Casa del Prado, Balboa Park
December 7–18

San Diego Ballet: Mandeville Theatre, La Jolla
December 16–18

West Coast Ballet Theater: California Center for the Arts, Escondido
December 17–18

Moscow Ballet: Jacobs Music Center, Downtown
December 21

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