I haven’t been home for Christmas in seven years. Between living in London and traveling all over the world, my Christmases—in Australia, Namibia, Madagascar, Singapore, and London—have been spent far from the California coast. But this year I couldn’t resist the lure of a San Francisco Christmas, and I’m back in the USA for the holidays. It’s a good thing, too because this city gets about as dressed up for Christmas as London does. Here are the highlights…
The epicenter of San Francisco’s Christmas spirit lies in Union Square. Every year when I was a child, I looked forward to the day the giant tree went up in the middle of the plaza. This year I’m lucky enough to see it on the day of San Francisco’s Santacon, when Union Square is so full of people in red suits that I can barely see the new winter ice skating rink.
Down the street from Union Square is where another of San Francisco’s best Christmas traditions takes place. The windows of Macy’s, one of the largest department stores in the city, are dressed up with decorations of a very special kind: Christmas puppies and kittens.
In partnership with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Macy’s showcases cute baby animals that are up for adoption during the holiday season. In addition to raising money and awareness for the cause, they also provide adorable entertainment for all passing by.
But people aren’t the only ones passing by. On the other side of the store, San Francisco’s iconic cable cars run up and down the city’s hills. This month they are all dressed up for the holidays, complete with wreaths and lights.
Joining them in the decorative spirit are some of San Francisco’s historic luxury hotels. As I enter the Palace Hotel—a grand dame in the downtown—I am met with the prospect of life-size gingerbread houses.
And that’s to say nothing of the Christmas tree under the breathtaking stained glass dome in the hotel’s Garden Court. My mother and I sit down there for a holiday afternoon tea at the Palace Hotel, complete with a live harpist playing Christmas music.
But my favorite Christmas music of all is the score of The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet made its American debut at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco in 1944, and has been beloved by the city since. Seeing The Nutcracker is another of my pre-Christmas traditions with my mother, and we arrive to find ourselves in a winter wonderland.
The opera house is bedecked with Christmas trees, lights, and—you guessed it—nutcrackers. My mother and I can’t help but get a pre-ballet glass of bubbly as we peruse the ballet-themed gift shop, and after we settle into our seats, we are whisked off to Victorian San Francisco for an adventure with Clara and her new toy.
After the ballet, we walk outside to discover that San Francisco’s city hall has been lit up red and green for the holiday season, a stunning sight that rivals London’s spectacular Christmas light displays.
But there’s one thing that makes it better: it’s at home. And after seven long years away, it’s good to be back in San Francisco for Christmas.