Holiday lights make the early darkness of winter a beautiful thing. One of my favorite displays in San Diego is the simple strings of colorful lights that wind around the railings on the streets above the 15 and the 805 freeways. On my way home south to Chula Vista, I catch sight of them sparkling above, and something in me stirs. Fantasy. Maybe nostalgia. Something a little bittersweet. Whatever it is, I like it. But I’ve lived through some sad holidays in my life, too, and the thought of making someone else’s holiday season a little better also appeals. This year, I plan to drag my family and friends to as many wonderlands and garden-light displays as we can fit in, and I’ll make a point to spread the love as well. On at least one occasion, the love will be spread by way of cookies, martinis, and Spanish tapas.
Garden of Lights
230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas
Embrace holiday magic Southern California style as you wander through 37 acres of lush, natural beauty illuminated with 125,000+ holiday lights. The Lawn Garden, Tropical Rainforest, Eucalyptus Grove, and other special areas throughout the San Diego Botanic Garden will offer a sparkling and festive backdrop for nightly entertainment, marshmallow roasting, visits with Santa, mulled wine and holiday crafts, and on select nights, snow and opportunities to ride in a horse-drawn wagon. Garden of Lights runs December 2–23, and 26–30 from 5 to 9 p.m.
12122 Cuyamaca College Drive West, Rancho San Diego
Get a head start on your New Year’s resolution to cut back on water usage in your home garden by taking inspiration from six acres of themed gardens and displays showcasing the beauty of water-wise gardening. Or just enjoy another distinctly Southern California display of holiday lights as the Water Conservation Garden sets their gardens aglow. This six-night event offers a special opportunity to stroll through the festive, illuminated gardens at night, plus holiday treats and refreshments. Reservations necessary. Event takes place December 7–9 and 14–16, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Wacky Wonka Wonderland
3002 Armstrong Street, Linda Vista
This past May, the San Diego Center for Children celebrated its 130th birthday. The organization, which is the oldest children’s nonprofit in San Diego, serves children, teens, and families struggling with emotional and behavioral disorders. This year, their holiday donation drive celebration centers around a Willy Wonka theme and includes food trucks, jumpers, carnival games, craft booths, holiday music, pictures with Santa and Willy Wonka, and a Vespa parade. Options for the cost of admission include monetary donations of $25 and up, or a donation of toys or gift cards from the wish-list link on the organization’s website. The event takes place on Sunday, December 10 from noon to 3 p.m.
Home for the Holidays pet adoption
4133 Taylor Street, Old Town
In 1999, 14 San Diego animal-rescue facilities participated in the first Helen Woodward Animal Center Home 4 the Holidays Pet Adoption campaign. Today, over 4000 facilities worldwide take part each year from October through the end of December, most often exceeding the goal of 1,000,000 pets adopted during that time period. This year, the celebration takes place at Bazaar del Mundo and features a holiday pet fashion show, Santa Paws photo ops, and holiday merchandise for pets. For those looking to bring home an animal companion, some adoptable pets will also be on site. The event takes place Saturday, December 9, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Holiday cooking and baking classes
7007 Friars Road (at Fashion Valley Mall), Mission Valley
4048 30th Street, North Park
Whether you’re planning to entertain at home or just want to bring a special treat to share in the break room at your office this holiday season, a cooking or baking class can help take your skills to the next level. Sur le Table at Fashion Valley Mall offers classes in holiday chocolate making, cookie decorating, Spanish paella, prime-rib dinner, and more. At Hipcooks in North Park, the Cocktail Party class will teach you how to make martinis, mojitos, and ginger lemon drops. And if you take the Mas Tapas class, too, you’ll be all set to host New Year’s Eve at home.
Read with children
201 E. Douglas Avenue, El Cajon
If all the volunteer positions at local soup kitchens have filled up, or if you just want to give your time in a different way this year, head to the StoryTents at the El Cajon Library (Wednesdays 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.) or the City Heights Farmers’ Market (Saturdays 8:45 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., 4325 Wightman Street). Volunteers read with children to help improve literacy skills and inspire a love of stories. Donations of small prizes, such as Play-Doh, mechanical pencils, and Matchbox cars can also be made at the StoryTent locations or the Traveling Stories office in Mission Valley.