The holiday season is upon us, and Northern California is filled with a plethora of family-friendly activities. Whether you’re soaring with Santa above San Francisco in the world’s largest airship, waving at surfing Santa from the shores of Capitola, or meandering through the historic Christmas Villages of Nevada City, Northern California offers something for everyone. Here are our favorite Holiday & Christmas Events in Northern California for families.
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Northern California Christmas trains are popular events that sell out quickly. During the months of November and December, numerous train companies offer young guests the opportunity to meet Santa in vintage passenger cars decked with dazzling lights and holiday swag. Napa Valley Wine Train’s Santa Train combines the best of worlds, a mother’s love of wine and a child’s love of Santa. It runs November 19- December 28.
The Polar Express in Sacramento (should you be lucky enough to have already secured tickets for the often sold-out event) gives out the “first gift of Christmas” — a sleigh bell — to each passenger. On the return trip, all join in and sing Christmas carols when pulling into the station at the California State Railroad Museum. Sacramento & Sierra Christmas Trains carry not just Santa, but elves, storytellers, musicians, hot cocoa, and cookies.
The Niles Canyon Railway Train of Lights features 15 train cars draped in holiday lights. The Christmas Train to Willits is a 90-minute merry treat for pajama-clad passengers. Roaring Camp Railroads offers the children of Santa Cruz, not just one, but two holiday trains departing directly from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk: Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train and Chanukah Train.
Explore where to catch the Polar Express.
Evoke the spirit of Christmas past amidst the delightful backdrop of historic downtown Grass Valley during their yearly Cornish Christmas Celebration. The event takes place on Fridays beginning November 23rd and runs through December 21. Mill and West Main Streets are blocked to traffic and packed with the resonances of an old-fashioned Christmas while the Grass Valley Cornish Carol Choir croons Christmas carols on the steps of the historic Union Building. Delight your senses with the aromas of your favorite foods while you stroll down the bustling historic streets of Downtown Grass Valley. Listen to musicians play Christmas music as shops bathed in Christmas lights twinkle in the night air.
In Nevada City, at the Victorian Christmas, you’ll see kids and adults dressed in period costumes and Santa Claus. Delicious food and drink can be purchased from a number of specialty food vendors. This event takes place on select Sundays and Wednesdays in December. Visit the Victorian Christmas website for more details.
In Paso Robles, Vine Street Victorian Showcase features Ebenezer Scrooge, the Snow Queen, and Mr. & Mrs. Claus. Bring the kids to Vine Street for the festive sounds of caroling, illuminated floats, entertainers, live music, cotton candy, and free cookies and hot chocolate! This year, the event is held on December 8.
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On two weekends in December, Fairytale Town in Sacramento is decorated with festive trimmings and lit up with dazzling lights, starting at dusk. This holiday event, Winter Wonderland, features holiday-themed activities for the kids, strolling Victorian carolers, items for purchase from local vendors, and a nightly snow flurry.
Beginning November 16 and running through the season, Sacramento’s Global Winter Wonderland is a multi-cultural celebration at Cal Expo. It will feature illuminated landscapes, ice-skating, thrill rides, international cuisine and a photo op with Santa.
In nearby Old Sacramento, celebrate the annual Theatre of Lights performance with state-of-the-art sound and lighting technology on Wednesdays, and Thursdays through Sundays at 6:15 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Special performances on Christmas Eve at 6:15 p.m. and New Year’s Eve at 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
In Oakland, Children’s Fairyland celebrates the winter holidays for 11 exciting days with a salute to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Las Posadas, Diwali, and Chinese New Year! Enjoy crafts, a festival of lights, and a visit from Santa in December.
Visit Oakland Zoo for their annual holiday event, ZooLights. Dazzling LED lights light up the Zoo and night sky to celebrate the holiday season. This year’s festive display features a merry music-themed light show illuminating the Zoo’s African Veldt.
In Alameda, South Shore Center’s Little Ice Rink is open every day until 10:00 p.m., through mid-January. Panera Bread will be serving treats and hot chocolate. Families can meet Santa and have pictures taken at The Santa House, that is to say when he’s not busy ice skating.
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In Copperopolis, the community will light its Holiday Tree, traditionally a 40-foot fir with more than 1,000 lights, in Town Square in November. Festivities will include music, an appearance by Santa and Mrs. Claus, and carriage rides.
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Take a snow day on December 2nd in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto! Bring your boots and mittens to play in the snow that will be gently falling on Shattuck Avenue between Rose and Vine Streets in Berkeley. Visit with the Snow Queen who will listen to all of your holiday wishes, ride the decorated live ponies, make holiday crafts, warm up with hot cider, and find one-of-a-kind holiday gifts from local craft vendors. This is a free event for children of all ages. The Gourmet Ghetto is just 6 blocks north of the Downtown Berkeley BART station and has festive lights in over 50 trees.
Also in Berkeley, The Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley makes the last day of the year one to remember at their New Year’s Eve Day Party! Countdown in the Science on a Sphere exhibit while observing what happens as the clock strikes midnight in different time zones around the world. No need to worry about forcing the kids to stay up until midnight — at 2:00 p.m. cheer with fellow families as hundreds of balloons mark the celebration of the New Year. December 31, 12:00–2:00 p.m.
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In Windsor, stroll through Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Grove, a joyful and inspiring grove of decorative Charlie Brown Christmas Trees on Windsor Town Green. Snow falls each evening at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p..m., the end of November through early January.
In Big Trees State Park, take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the giant sequoias and warm up with hot cocoa, hot apple cider and cookies, hot dogs and chili plus many more surprises!
Be sure to check Trekaroo’s lists for Fun Holiday Activities for Kids in Sacramento, CA.
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Thanksgiving weekend brings the much-anticipated start to Resort at Squaw Creek‘s Magical Memories holiday celebration. The event begins with the Gingerbread Village Unveiling and Grand Tree Lighting Ceremony. Magical Memories include a turkey hunt, snow fort building contest, caroling, ice rink games, winter wonderland stories with Mrs. Claus, elf tuck-ins, family movies, breakfast with Santa, or Hanukkah menorah lighting.
The Village at Squaw Valley will transform into Olde World Christmas, complete with frosted vignette windows, horse-drawn sleigh rides, storytelling with Santa, and farm-to-table dinners with Olympians and legends. They’ll also have an ice garden, train rides, orchestra performances, and Grinch look-alike contests.
Celebrate nearly two weeks of Christmas at Heavenly Holidays. This elaborate 13-day family-friendly festival at the Heavenly Village features professional ice skating shows, ice sculptors, and carolers. Santa’s Workshop will be recreated inside of a 16-foot interactive snow globe where families can get their photos taken with Santa! Festivities conclude on December 31 with A Heavenly New Year’s Celebration featuring a 9 p.m. ball drop and fireworks show!
Enjoy a Gingerbread Workshop under the expert teachings of a Ritz-Carlton pastry chef, guests are invited to experience the wonder of creating a personalized gingerbread house decorated with all the trimmings. Holiday beverages included. Advance reservations are required. $125 per family.
Family Movie Night occurs daily on select December days. This event created a reason for guests to leave their luxurious suites. Families are invited to get comfortable in The Pines Ballroom during complimentary screenings of family favorites on the big screen.
Kids’ Crafts & Creations offered daily. From creating picture frames to designing cookies and making holiday sock monkey dolls, each day offers a new activity to stir creative juices at the Kids Crafts & Creations Workshop. These free projects are an amenity of the resort’s Ritz Kids program, which provides year-round entertainment designed for children.
Granlibakken Conference Center & Lodge offers a hearty Thanksgiving feast that celebrates family and friends around the dinner table. Join the group celebration for $60 ($20 for children 10 years and younger). Before dinner, work up an appetite outdoors at Granlibakken’s Treetop Adventure Park. Set 30 feet off the ground, the ropes course and zip line will be open Thanksgiving week (weather permitting) and throughout the winter season.
Camp Richardson Historic Resort and Marina is an all-season resort with lodging in cabins and hotel rooms. The Beacon Bar and Grill, situated on the scenic shore of Lake Tahoe, is offering special menus for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.
In December, the annual Trek to the Nation’s Christmas Tree (the General Grant Tree), is a tribute to the men and women of the Armed Forces who have sacrificed their lives for their country. A memorial wreath placed is placed at the base, and an NPS representative will speak on the tree’s role as a national shrine. Attendees can park at the Grant Tree Trail entrance lot, take a free shuttle from the Kings Canyon Visitors Center, or a paid shuttle from the Sanger Chamber of Commerce offices. In addition, Kings Canyon Park admission is free from 2 to 4 p.m. on the day of the event.
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Dec 8-9, from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Thirteen of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park buildings that are normally closed will be open and decorated for the holidays. Docents will be at each house to tell the history of the building, and refreshments will be served at certain houses to get you in the holiday mood! Wristbands to visit the houses will be sold for $5.00 per person (5 and under is free). Enjoy wreath making, wagon rides, music, and of course Santa. There is a parking/park day use fee of $8.00 per car. For more information please call (530) 622-3470.
Dec 1, 8, 9, 15, and 16 from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., Davy “Doc” Wiser and his crew will be providing FREE stagecoach rides in good weather. If you’ve never taken a ride in a real stagecoach, this is a treat for the whole family! Holiday entertainment is featured at the Bell Tower on weekends in December, in good weather too.
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On Friday, November 23rd, the downtown merchants will provide savory treats and musical entertainment. Santa swings by the Plaza from 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. for pictures and wishlist requests.
Step back in time at Madrona Manor, this charming, historic wine country inn will be decorated in Victorian Splendor for the holiday season. Enjoy an evening of fine dining along with carols. Insider Tip: Many children attend this dinner, but keep in mind that the price is the same for adults and children and the dinner service lasts a little over two hours.
Lights will illuminate the way to this year’s holiday festivities in City Park on November 23rd. Mrs. Claus will arrive and light the downtown, sharing her merriment with all. Enjoy music, candlelight caroling, free cookies, and hot chocolate. Admission is free.
On December 1 at 7pm, relish the sights of the holiday spirit with a brilliant parade featuring an array of lighted spectacles from local businesses. Awards will be given for best in show. Join Santa and Mrs. Claus and witness downtown light up with holiday spirit!
The Downtown Paso Robles’ Annual Teddy Bear Tea (December 15) invites kids to bring their teddy bear for tea, stories, gingerbread cookie decorating, arts and crafts, and visits with the Snow Queen and King, Mrs. Claus, Santa Claus, lovable elves and Victorian friends.
Rudolph and his reindeer pals get the day off when Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive in Petaluma on a Jerico tugboat on November 24. Their trusty tug chugs up the Petaluma River and arrives at noon at River Plaza shopping center where the waiting crowd has been entertained by a variety of festive performers at this free event. After Santa and Mrs. Claus disembark, they are greeted by costumed dancers from Petaluma City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” and are escorted to a Santa’s workshop for photos with children and lots of Christmas wishes.
The Apple Farm Inn and Restaurant in San Luis Obispo welcomes you to its annual Holidays at the Apple Farm from November 9 through Christmas Day, a classic celebration of the season’s most time-honored traditions, with several free activities for families.
Madonna Inn, a historic landmark hotel with themed rooms, offers a succulent holiday meal and New Year’s Eve Celebration.
Hearst Castle is an unforgettable experience on any given day, but during the holidays you’ll be awestruck. From December 1-31 (except Dec. 25), the Castle decks the halls generously, giving guests the sense they’ve traveled back through time and are celebrating the holidays with Hearst’s iconic roisterers.
For over 40 years residents have looked forward to The Holiday Extravaganza, presented by The Great American Melodrama. The show features a matchless holiday performance, including an uplifting one-act rendition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a heartwarming splintered fairy-tale opera and a well-known Holiday Vaudeville Revue.
Downtown San Luis Obispo’s Annual Holiday Parade on Dec 1 dazzles partygoers with nearly 100 decorative floats, jammin’ musical acts, and dancers. The next day, Mr. and Mrs. Claus will ride a train to the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum, which will be outfitted in holiday cheer.
Morro Bay sponsors a free Lighted Boat Parade on Dec 1 as well, where spectators can peer out into the bay at ornamented Christmas skiffs, yachts, fishing boats, cutters, sailboats, and kayaks.
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Enjoy 50 decorated boats parading throughout Santa Cruz Harbor, rain or shine. This family-oriented festival is free and held Dec 1 from 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Harbor. Also in December, attend the Scotts Valley Christmas Tree Lighting Festival with music and Santa at 5:00 p.m.
On December 9, pay a visit to the Jingle Shells Arts and Crafts Festival. Ocean-inspired gifts from local artists, live musical performances, kids crafts, and other festivities from 12:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.
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A 1920’s style circus based on the French tradition Le Cirque de Boheme will transport you into a surreal dream filled with enchantment, wonder, and discovery. A Magician, Contortionist, Hat Juggling, Ball Spinning, Unicycle, Mime, an eccentric Clown, Knife-Thrower and other assorted performers of Paris of the 1920’s can be seen. The circus takes place on select dates in November and December.
See what the snowmen are up to this year at Cornerstone Sonoma! Music and entertainment, pictures with Santa on the big blue chair, and the annual lighting of the snowmen around the Cornerstone Gardens. Available to view through December. The lighting takes place on December 1.
Christmas at the Mission
Join in a candlelight procession on December 8 from Sonoma Barracks to Mission San Francisco Solano followed by a non-denominational service. The Mission will host holiday festivities which include history demonstrations, crafts, snacks, and Santa. Don’t miss the three Las Posadas pageants in the chapel.
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The legendary Teddy Bear Tea at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco runs from November through December, with seatings at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Children and their beloved stuffed animals are invited to assemble in The Terrace Courtyard Tent for a glamorous tea service featuring the giant Ritz-Carlton Teddy Bear. Holiday entertainment is dished along with hot chocolate, holiday confections, and assorted sandwiches.
While you are in the city, learn Where to Enjoy Holiday Lights in San Francisco.
Apple Hill, located just northeast of Placerville, is a beautiful destination to pick and chop a Christmas tree. Several full-sized Christmas tree farms open the day after Thanksgiving and remain open until Christmas Eve. Visiting Apple Hill is a memorable experience any time of year, especially over Christmas! Some of the more popular Christmas Tree Farms include High Sierra Iris Gardens, Hillside Tree Farm, and McGee Christmas Tree Farm. Christmas at Apple Hill isn’t just about picking a Christmas tree; many farms offer great family-oriented activities for the kids and have steaming cups of hot chocolate or homemade apple cider waiting for you.
Be sure to check Trekaroo’s list for Apple Hill Christmas Tree Farms.
Monterey’s signature holiday event is Christmas in Adobes. On Dec 7, stroll through the streets of Historic Downtown Monterey and enjoy live performances as volunteers in period attire welcome you into 19th Century homes decorated in historical style. Refreshments, games, history, and merriment await the entire family.
Welcome the New Year with the entire family (ages 5 and older) at the Monterey Bay Aquarium! The evening will feature a sparkling cider toast at 9:00 p.m. and a Pinkberry sundae bar to celebrate the countdown to the New Year on East Coast time. Fun family oriented activities and programs are planned for this unique night of celebration.
The Holiday Parade of Lights (Nov 29) is an annual tradition in Pacific Grove and includes floats, marching bands, dance troupes, performing horses, and Santa Claus. Afterward, carolers will walk through the streets of downtown as local shops stay open well into the evening for the holiday celebration.
Santa Claus arrives by boat at Tomales Bay with treats and holiday wishes. Santa will dock at the Boat Shack at Nick’s Cove Restaurant on Dec 2 for his annual visit. Children can sit and chat with Santa in the Boat Shack, which is illuminated for the holiday season, and enjoy complimentary hot chocolate and sweets.
Mendocino’s Annual Festival of Lights at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens promises to impress visitors with thousands of glittering lights to create a fantastical coastal garden full of sparkling whimsy. It takes place every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from Nov 23 – Dec 16.
Read Trekaroo’s reviews of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Special thanks to Tina Buell who wrote the original version of this article.
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