California rambling: Magical winter festivals

By From page A4 | December 10, 2012

Winter is best described as “Magical.”

All other seasons change by their internal cycle of life. New life appears in springtime, matures in summer and has a fiery demise in autumn, but in winter the change comes from external elements.

Snowflakes fascinate us with their geometric symmetry and gentle descent. Soon, the winter landscape is blanketed. It glistens and sparkles, twinkles and glows in contradictory ways no other season provides.

Winter offers brisk chilliness outside and warm coziness inside. We’re lured outdoors by the thrills of sliding recklessly down hills of snow or gracefully across ponds of ice, and indoors by warming fires and drinks, companionship and romance.

The wonder of this polarity is best experienced at festivals, carnivals and events now through March.   El Dorado County is home to several, there are others nearby and some pretty amazing ones that make for delightful winter getaways.

Northern California’s most unusual winter festival began over 2,200 years ago. The Global Winter Wonderland at California’s Great America in Santa Clara presents nightly displays of bigger-than-life, fantasy lanterns that are the progeny of lanterns created in 230 B.C.

By the 6th Century A.D. the tradition of Chinese lantern making had become so widespread, that emperor Yangdi (who ruled during the Sui dynasty) invited envoys from across Asia to see the colorful lanterns and enjoy Chinese artistic performances. In the 7th Century A.D. the festival lasted three days with royalty and peasantry alike reveling. More recently, the Chinese Lantern Festival has spread to Europe and, last year, International Cultural Exchange Group brought it to Santa Clara.

These lanterns are bigger-than-life depictions of enchanted lands, world landmarks, dinosaurs, imaginary gardens, whimsical characters and space ships, glowing in brilliant colors. Carousel Plaza and New Orleans Square near the entrance to Great America are filled with the multi-colored lanterns.  A laser light show, magicians, jugglers, a tribute band, performers and rides round out the festivities.

David Andre of the Santa Clara Convention and Visitors Bureau described the show as “bigger and better” this year, with “more spectacular lanterns to enjoy.” Overnight packages at the Santa Clara Biltmore, Hyatt, Marriott and Embassy Suites hotels, include accommodations and admission for two to Global Winter Wonderland ( Individual tickets can also be purchased online for as little as $14 (Groupon) or for $18 at the gate (

Closer to home, Heavenly Holidays, a two-week festival begins Dec. 19 and continues to New Year’s Eve at Heavenly Village (South Lake Tahoe), featuring live music, ice sculptures, professional ice skating and photos with Santa inside a giant snow globe. On New Year’s Eve, the festival concludes at Heavenly Village ( with a concert, fire dancers, ice sculptors and the Gondola Drop, in which an illuminated car descends from the mountain top at 9 p.m., coinciding with a community countdown and followed by a fireworks display to welcome the new year.

The SnowGlobe electronic music festival runs Dec. 29-31 ( with performances by DJs, rappers and electrofunk artists, along with 38 bands at Lake Tahoe Community College.

Sierra-at-Tahoe continues its Christmas tradition Dec. 22-23 with live music, snowman building and other holiday-themed contests, such as Candy Cane Limbo and Hot Cocoa Bean Bag Toss ( While, Kirkwood Mountain Resort goes all-out on New Year’s Eve, ending the year with a bang.

Kirkwood celebrates its 40th birthday all day on Dec. 31. The New Year’s Eve celebration includes fireworks, music and a torchlight parade down the mountain that is open to intermediate to expert skiers and boarders, ages 10 and up.  Hint: If flares are used, don’t wear your good ski jacket.  Instead, wear something you don’t mind getting burned with cinders from the flares (

For non-skiers, snowcats will provide champagne and sparkling cider rides to the top of Kirkwood’s Chair 2 to watch the fireworks, followed by dinner at the Wall Bar. More ski-free fun occurs on sleigh rides at Historic Camp Richardson in South Lake Tahoe and aboard the Tahoe Queen to be visited by Santa for photos on Dec. 15 at 11 a.m. ( Indoor celebrations continue through December at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe and the MontBleu with headline entertainers and New Year’s Eve revelry beyond description.  Details are found at,, and

At North Lake Tahoe, Santa Claus arrives at Squaw Valley Village on Dec. 15 and returns to ski the mountain on Dec. 21, 22, 23 and 24.  Tour Squaw Valley with Olympic medalist Johnny Moseley, Dec. 26-31; take a moonlit snowshoe walk on Dec. 28 & 29; enjoy a holiday dinner at High Camp on Dec. 29 & 30  and fireworks on New Year’s Eve (

Northstar’s Noel Nights includes complimentary ice skating, hot cocoa and s’mores, carolers, photos with Santa and shopping specials on Dec. 13 and 20 in the Village at Northstar ( The resort’s annual Fire & Ice New Year’s Eve party features a 9 p.m.  fireworks display and Bon Jovi cover band.

Northstar joins Squaw, Alpine Meadows, Homewood and Diamond Peak, Mar. 1 – 10, to host the 32nd SnowFest, with parades, races, parties, concerts, snow angels (the kind that wear bikinis, halos and wings), theater productions, costume parties and end-of-winter silliness.

How’s that for magical winter festivities?

John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.

John Poimiroo

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