Christmas markets might make you think of European festivities in cities such as Berlin, Strasbourg and Paris. But sunny California has many traditional Christmas markets, too, welcoming Santa Claus and vendors of mulled wine and festive treats – with proceeds often going to charity.
The setting might not be as historic as the Christmas markets in Europe, but in California there’s a growing number of festive holiday markets, thanks to the growing popularity of these events globally. Many are themed after Germany, Sweden and even Dickensian London, with costumed actors and speciality foods keeping things real. These fun, yet educational events sell unique gift ideas, food and drink, and are often raising money for a good cause. And the best part? You won’t need a hat and gloves to participate. Don’t worry – there’s still mulled wine to keep you cozy.
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This year-round, Bavarian-style village opened in 1968 and offers up a slice of Germany for anytime you’re in the Los Angeles area. Its own Alpine Market sells an impressive assortment of European groceries, including award-winning sausages (there’s a master sausage maker in house), bakery goods and German beer. But during the four weeks leading up to Christmas (closed on Christmas Day), the village goes one step further by putting on a free Christmas Faire modeled after the traditional markets found in Bavaria. This indoor-outdoor festival boasts plenty of decorations and festive events for the whole family, along with vendors selling souvenirs and traditional German snacks and beverages.
Further south is the annual December Nights event, located in San Diego’s sprawling Balboa Park. For a few days each year, the event draws big crowds, evolving from an original, smaller event that was held along El Prado walkway in 1978. Nowadays, the park is transformed into a winter wonderland with an enormous Christmas tree brought in from the Cuyamaca Mountains. There’s free entry into the museums and live concerts in the open-air Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Come hungry, as there are more vendors than you can count, serving international food and tipples.
In the heart of Napa Valley is the town of Calistoga, which holds a weekend Christmas Faire every first weekend of December. A myriad of events and activities takes place in this short time frame, including an old-fashioned tree lighting ceremony, trolley rides, holiday movie screenings and a tractor parade. You’ll also be able to shop from artisan vendors, decorate gingerbread houses and cupcakes, and sing your socks off caroling. And that’s before you turn your attention to the beautiful range of delicious food items and local wines (this is Napa, after all). Admission is free.
Thanks to volunteers from the German International School of Silicon Valley, the city of Mountain View puts on a one-day German Holiday Market every year at the Mountain View City Hall Plaza. Taking up a two-block area, this family event offers kiddie rides, music and dance performances, a petting zoo, holiday crafts and Santa Claus visits. Fuel up on giant pretzels, mulled wine and beer before shopping for traditional holiday gifts handcrafted in Germany. 100 percent of purchases benefit the bilingual school, which has two locations in Mountain View and San Francisco.
California’s capital offers a two-day Christmas market every year that imitates the outdoor Christmas markets around Germany. At the Sacramento Turn Verein Hall, there’s live Christmas music and a few dozen booths selling everything you’d find at a German market: traditional arts and crafts, toasted almonds, gluhwein (mulled wine), stollen (a traditional fruit cake) and little figurines made out of dried plums. Tuck into a Nuremberg sausage dinner and pay a visit to Santa Claus and the German Christkind (traditional gift bearer). The event benefits multiple charities in the Sacramento area – you can enter for free with a coat donation, or pay a small fee.
In addition to the German-themed festival in Huntington Beach, the SWEA (Swedish Women’s Educational Association) puts on a one-day festival and fundraiser at the same location during the holiday season. The Swedish Christmas Fair welcomes local vendors who display their beautiful handmade crafts, clothing, gifts and decorations, baked goods, sweet treats and artwork for Christmas gift browsing. There’s also traditional music and dance, and plenty of tasty eats to slurp down with traditional Nordic mulled wine, glögg. Keep an eye out for the Swedish version of Santa Claus, called St. Lucia.
This one-day indoor event at the Torrance Cultural Art Center is another Swedish market in the LA area, organized by a separate chapter of SWEA. This is where you get your Christmas shop on, browsing the great selection of genuine Swedish handicrafts including Christmas souvenirs, jewelry, fine art and toys. Watch (or partake) in traditional folk dancing and see St. Lucia and her choir perform twice during the day (there’s also a Santa Claus). Sip on some glögg while you select which baked goods to take home with you, in the knowledge that the Christmas Fair is non-profit and for a good cause. It’s organized by volunteers, and entrance fees and proceeds go towards educational scholarships.
From budget-friendly stays in Morro Bay to immersive nature retreats in Sequoia National Park, we know just the hotel for you to book for a peaceful night of California Dreamin’. Whichever end of the Golden State you find yourself, be inspired by our northern and southern highlights. Follow your nose and discover the foods you must try when in San Francisco.
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