If you’re spending any time in California with the kids during the holiday season, you need not rely on malls alone for meet-and-greets with Santa Claus. Across the Golden State, Saint Nick is known to make dramatic entrances as Surfing Santa—wearing board shorts and shades—or as Skiing Santa, zooming down the side of a mountain on skis or even a snowboard. Other Santa meet-and-greets connect you with local festivals, parades, and even an army of light-up snowmen in wine country. Check out these California-style Santas who bring an extra heaping of jolly to the holiday.
Napa Valley Wine Train
November 19 through December 29
For most of the year, the Napa Valley Wine Train offers a scenic ride and tasting experience through this famous stretch of wine country. During the holidays, though, a seasonally-festooned train takes kids and their parents on daily rides to Santa’s workshop, to uncover some Teddy bears that Saint Nick apparently misplaced. Rather than Cabernets, the onboard tastings focus on cookies, hot cocoa, and other treats. Parents, meanwhile, might want to come back at the end of the season for the New Year’s Eve Train, which features a four-course dinner and plenty of local sparkling wine.
Seaport Village, San Diego
In a city where flip-flops are year-round footwear, Santa can’t be weighed down by his heavy black boots. So when he arrives on a watercraft at this annual event at San Diego’s Seaport Village, Surfing Santa is rocking board shorts, flip-flops, and an all-season Hawaiian shirt. Give him your wish list or just pose with him next to his surfboard. The afternoon party at this festive shopping zone near downtown also includes a parade, kids crafts, and live street performers.
In Santa Cruz County, flying reindeer may be hard to come by, so Santa gets his horsepower, as it were, from reindeer with good rowing arms. At this event, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, Saint Nicholas comes ashore at Capitola’s Main Beach on a well-staffed outrigger canoe. Then, he’ll hear kids’ wish lists while relaxing in his beach chair. A week later, Capitola Village hosts its tree lighting ceremony with cookie-decorating, face painting, and a window-display contest; look for Santa in the crowds here again, this time with his pal, the Christmas Fairy.
December 2–4 and 9–11
This charming Central Coast town embraces its Scandinavian heritage at the two-weekend-long JuleFest, which kicks off with a parade of Danish dancers, horses and carriages, and vintage cars. Afterward, the red-clad dude with his own Nordic heritage greets the kids at Solvang Park. The second weekend of festivities includes a Nativity Scene with live animals, along with the Solvang Wine and Beer Walk at 13 local tasting rooms. On either weekend, indulge your sugar cravings along Solvang’s Sweet Treats Trail: an array of bakeries, wine stores, coffeehouses, and sweet shops where you can find chocolates, wines, and plenty of local Danish kringle and stollen.
Cornerstone Gardens, Sonoma
In 2004, the owner of Cornerstone Gardens—a collection of boutique wineries, shops, and tasting rooms in the town of Sonoma—bought a small army of decorative snowmen from a soon-to-close factory in Boston. Once he’d brought them back to Sonoma, he created a funny display that made it appear as if they’d been thrown across a road into a vineyard. (No worries: The plastic snowmen were not injured.) A holiday tradition was born, and now each year, the lit-up snowmen get arranged in a creative new formation. This year, will they be stacked vertically, lined up along a ski jump, or in some other intriguing configuration? Come find out at this free festival, which also features live music, crafts, local cuisine, and wine and beer tastings. A live Santa reigns from his orange chair, listening to wishes and perhaps pardoning the embattled snowmen.
San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Capitola
This annual pub crawl—in which participants must dress as Santa—happens in select cities all over the world, but the versions in California promise to be some of the biggest. The San Francisco crawl will begin at noon with a striking rendezvous in Union Square; if you decide to join them, just remember to adhere to the SantaCon code to be kind to kids, police, and bartenders. There are also SantaCon options before and after the 10th: December 3 in the Bay Area towns of Hayward and Windsor, and in Cupertino on December 16.
Just a few nights before the winter solstice, the high season at Mammoth kicks off with this annual (and free) evening at Canyon Lodge. Certainly, the risk of a dark sky runs very low: Besides the live music, kids’ activities, and snowmobile rides, there will be a torchlight parade and fireworks. Cap it off by letting the kids meet Santa as well as Wooly, Mammoth’s lovably prehistoric mascot.
Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows
Santa doesn’t just sit on a big chair in Squaw Village—he likes to schuss down the mountain with the other skiers and snowboarders. During two weeks of festivities around Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, Santa makes regular appearances on the slopes; in between, there are horse-drawn carriage rides, ice sculpture demonstrations, and Grinch look-alike contests. For another holiday treat, go on one of the resort’s Dawn Patrol ski tours, hosted on a few days this year by Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley.
Mountain High Ski resort
Santas likely outnumber the elves at this now-annual event at Mountain High, about 90 minutes from Los Angeles and Orange County. You can ski for free on this day when you make a small donation (of at least $20) to the eco-minded Protect Our Winters organization, founded by Olympic snowboarder Jeremy Jones. The only hitch: You also have to don a full Santa suit with beard and hat. Even if you don’t go as Santa yourself, you’d be hard-pressed not to get in the holiday spirit surrounded by freestyling St. Nicks.
A crimson bridge, cable cars, a sparkling bay, and streets lined with elegant Victorian homes—San Francisco is undeniably one of the world’s great cities. Located along the Northern California at the state’s distinctive bend in the coast, the region has an alluring magic that stretches beyond the bay to diverse cities with nightlife and trend-setting cuisine.
"I left my heart in San Francisco, High on a hill, it calls to me." —singer Tony Bennett
The Bay Area is also home to some of the world’s finest wine country, including Napa Valley and Sonoma, plus waterfront towns, dramatic beaches, and the tech-savvy southern end of the bay known as the Silicon Valley, where lunchtime ideas at Google, Facebook, and Apple, turn into the next brilliant innovation.
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