San Francisco’s Holiday Celebrations

Although the annual tree lightings throughout the City and the advent of Market Street’s “Path of Gold” with its illuminated light poles and giant LED snowflakes begin in mid-November, December is prime time for the holiday entertainments.

Spirit Stimulators

Strollers need only to go window-shopping at the stores on streets across from Union Square, where the 85-foot Macy’s tree is a 19-year tradition. Shops across from the square include the legendary Gumps, Brooks Brothers, Bullock & Jones, Armani, Versace, Dior et al.

Other great shopping spots with giant trees and holiday decorations include Embarcadero Center, with its holiday ice rink and office buildings glistening with 17,000 lights. At Ghiradelli Square, spirits can’t help but brighten with views not only of the sparkling tree but of the San Francisco Bay as well.

The Great Dickens Fair

Shoppers fond of the literature of Victorian England will want to visit the Great Dickens Fair, held each year at the Cow Palace, where the 90,000 plus square-feet of exhibit space is transformed into scenes from the days of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Oliver Twist. Strolling characters such as Father Christmas, Tiny Tim and street vendors hawking their wares are part of the passing parade. Shopping for out-of-the-ordinary is the Fair’s main event, with everything from Victorian reproductions and romantic clothing to one-of-a-kind works of art for sale.

Mystics – Mama Mambo, Madame Jolie and Mrs. Nickleby — are on hand to gaze in crystal balls, read Tarot cards and palms. There’s song and dance at Fizziwig’s Warehouse and music hall entertainment at Mad Sal’s Dockside Alehouse. Fair-goers can create brass rubbings, have their pictures taken at Mrs. Pipers Photo Parlour and participate in dozens of activities. Continuous entertainment on five stages and in the London streets, an international array of food, wines and champagne are other diversions. (December 6-7. 13-14, 20-21; general admission for adults, $22, children, $10)

Big Stage Spectaculars

ODC/Dance performances of The Velveteen Rabbit, which begin the day after Thanksgiving will be presented on Thursday through Saturday until December 14 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts ($15-$45 , 415-978-2787,

December 4 through 27, the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) presents Charles Dickens’ :A Christmas Carol. One of “The City’s” most treasured events, ACT’s annual interpretations of the classic incorporate changes of scenery and costuming each year (415 Geary Street; ticket prices start at $14).

The San Francisco Ballet’s annual performances of the Nutcracker are another cherished tradition with California Bay Area’s residents. (War Memorial Opera House, December 11 –28; $20 to $239. First performed at the Opera House in 1944, the S. F. Ballet’s version of the magical work by Tchaikovsky is considered one of the best in the United States. Beach Blanket Babylon’s traditional holiday musical is also an audience-pleaser.

Memorable Music

Among San Francisco Symphony-sponsored events at Davies Hall are the “Christmas Choral Spectacular” December 12, a performance of “Peter and the Wolf,” with music by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and narration by Leonard Nimoy (December 14), three concerts performed by the San Francisco Symphony (one of them with the Canadian Brass, December 18), a New Orleans Jazz Orchestra performance (December 21) and two New Year’s concerts featuring Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley. A “Deck the Hall” party featuring symphony musicians scheduled for December 7 had sold out by the first week in November.

The series of holiday musical events at Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill include “A Brass and Organ Christmas” (December 8), Handel’s Messiah (December 7, 13, 14, 20, 21) and a “Family Sing-Along” (December 20).

And There’s More

The above are only the tip of the holiday entertainment iceberg. One of the best sources for a complete calendar of events is the weekly “Datebook” section of the San Francisco Chronicle (

It’s never too early to start planning a holiday visit to San Francisco and since many of the events are annual, forward-looking travelers can get a good idea of what’s on for this year by learning about this season’s festivities..

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