“It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.” ~Charles Dickens
Arizonans have many heartwarming annual holiday traditions. Here are our top ten picks for family-friendly holiday events around the state. In the true spirit of this season of giving, most are free and/or accept donations for charity; regular entrance fees apply for events held at state parks and museums.
1. Arizona’s Christmas City (Prescott)
Prescott was officially designated as “Arizona’s Christmas City” by Governor Rose Mofford in 1989. The city and its surrounding communities offer a variety of holiday light decorations, displays, parades, and other activities with old-fashioned hometown charm. The Courthouse lighting is a tradition established in 1954 for residents and visitors to share family time in the spirit of joy and wonder that is the holiday season. Prescott has a four-season climate as well as many historic Victorian style homes, which serve to enhance its Christmassy atmosphere.
Their festivities typically begin on the Saturday after Thanksgiving with the Holiday Light Parade. On the following Saturday there is the annual Christmas Parade that winds around the Courthouse Plaza, followed by the Courthouse Lighting ceremony, when the Plaza explodes in the incandescent beauty of nearly one million Christmas lights. You should come to the historic Courthouse Plaza early to stake out your spot, as this event always draws a huge crowd. Visit www.cityofprescott.net for more information on these events.
Then you can step back in time to the spirit of Christmas past at the Frontier Christmas Open House two blocks west at the Sharlot Hall Museum, 415 W. Gurley St. It features live seasonal music, a roaring fire, finely decorated historic buildings, a Christmas tree with vintage decorations, and living history re-enactors with tales of what Christmas was like in the state’s territorial days. It’s worth a stop for kids and adults alike (admission for those 17 and under is free). You can get more information at the museum’s website, www.sharlot.org.
In addition, the lobby of the Prescott Resort and Conference Center boasts the World’s Largest Gingerbread Village. More than 100 houses constructed of gingerbread and decorated with icing, candies, nuts, cookies, and dried fruit are set in a winter wonderland that includes an electric train display. Community groups and individuals enter their houses for judging in several categories. The village can be viewed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through the end of December. (The sooner the better, as the houses do start to sag and deteriorate after a while.) There is no charge to see the Gingerbread Village, but it is a fundraiser for Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters. They receive proceeds from the “lot sales,” gingerbread men cookie decorating, and the donation house. The Prescott Resort is located at 1500 Highway 69. For more details, visit www.prescottresort.com.
Finally, you won’t want to miss a drive through the “Valley of Lights” in Prescott Valley, only about 10 miles east of downtown Prescott. Follow the signs for Fain Park, and then strings of lights will guide your way. Take a spectacular one-mile drive through a huge array of nearly one million twinkling lights, tunnels of lit snowflakes, and more than 40 animated displays. You and your children will be “oohing” and “aahing” the whole way. It’s open from 6:00-10:00 pm every night in December, so make it a point to visit at least once during the season. Since it’s free, you can enjoy it as many times as you like!
2. Lighting Of The Luminarias (Tombstone)
The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park and the Tombstone Restoration Commission present the Annual Lighting of the Luminarias. “Las Posadas,” which means lodging or inn, uses luminarias or farolitos, depending on your tradition, as a way of symbolically lighting the path for Mary and Joseph on their procession to find shelter. The Mexican tradition evolved from 16th century Spanish missionaries. They lit bonfires along the roads and churchyards to guide people to Midnight Mass on the final night of the celebration of “Las Posadas.” To honor this tradition and ring in the festive holiday season, over 200 small brown paper sacks filled with sand and a candle will be set out and lit on the portico, front and side walls, for this one-night event at the Courthouse. Inside, visitors will be greeted by Victorian decorations, warmth and good cheer. Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park is located on the corner of Toughnut and 3rd Streets in Tombstone, Arizona, two blocks off Highway 80. For more information about the Lighting of the Luminarias, please see http://www.azstateparks.com/Parks/TOCO/index.html.
3. Winterhaven Festival of Lights (Tucson)
The Festival of Lights was started in 1949 by C.B. Richards, the founding father of Winterhaven Water & Development Company. Since then, residents of the Winterhaven neighborhood in central Tucson have continued to adorn their homes and gardens with lavish holiday displays. Decorating and participating in the Festival of Lights is all voluntary, but most participate because they love the festival and see it as their gift to the community. The Festival of Lights is one of the longest running festivals of its kind in the country, and it is visited by hundreds of thousands of people from all over southern Arizona. Pedestrians can stroll through the streets from 5:30-10 p.m. nightly; drivers are permitted only on certain nights. There is no entrance fee; however, the event is a fundraiser for the Tucson Community Food Bank. Please consider bringing non-perishable food, canned goods, or making a donation when arriving. Trolley and wagon rides can be reserved for a fee. See website for complete details and directions: www.winterhavenfestival.org.
4. Desert Foothills Christmas Pageant (Cave Creek)
In 1952, community members first joined together to present this homespun production that became an annual tradition. The Foothills Christmas Pageant celebrates the nativity with a live performance under the stars, out in the desert, at Spur Cross Ranch in Cave Creek. Many volunteers make it happen – rehearsing the choir, setting out roadside luminarias to light the way, providing hot cocoa and cookies – while bringing to life a staged re-enactment of the nativity story. Bring a lawn chair or blanket to sit on. Presented by the Foothills Community Foundation, usually on the first weekend in December. For more information, see: http://desertfoothillschristmaspageant.com.
5. Zoolights (Phoenix)
ZooLights is a magical experience guaranteed to illuminate your holiday season. Each year the Phoenix Zoo puts up an amazing display of lights, starting with a canopy of lights covering the entrance bridge. Million of lights transform the zoo into a winter wonderland with a wide variety of lighting techniques that include rope lights, LED lights, light strands, black light, fiber optics, lasers, gobos, strobes, lights programmed to music, and net lighting in trees and shrubbery. The event runs for about six weeks during the holiday season, in the evenings beginning in late November and continuing through early January. Make ZooLights a family tradition and enjoy one of the largest holiday light shows in the nation! Tickets are required; prices vary based on anticipated peak attendance nights. For more information, visit http://phoenixzoo.org/event-items/zoolights.
6. Temple Christmas Lights (Mesa)
Since 1980, the Mesa Arizona Temple Garden Christmas lights display has been a yearly tradition for families from across the state and is a popular holiday tourist attraction as well. See hundred of thousands of lights illuminate the grounds of the Mesa Arizona Temple. Lights hung in interesting patterns can be found throughout the beautiful gardens, adorning the ground-level flower gardens to the palm trees high over head. This stunning display is recognized as one of the most magnificent in the Southwest, attracting some one million visitors each year. Visitors also enjoy the large outdoor nativity display and life-size replicas depicting Mary and Joseph on their journey to Bethlehem and showing the Biblical prophet Isaiah, who prophesied of Christ’s birth. Inside the adjacent Visitors’ Center, a unique exhibit of nativity sets from around the world conveys the universal message of Christmas, while outdoor concerts by performing groups from across the state adds a warm and personal touch. Musical performances take place each night at 7 pm. Started as a gift to the community by local leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the display has grown to be the largest known volunteer-driven Christmas lights display, with more than 10,000 volunteer hours going into its creation each year. The Mesa Arizona Temple and Visitors’ Center, located at 525 E. Main Street, has free parking available in adjoining parking lots or on neighboring streets. There is no charge for any portion of the event: the outdoor display and all of the Visitors’ Center attractions are free. During the weeks of the lights display, the gardens will be lit from 5:30 until 10 p.m. through New Years’ Eve, and the Visitors’ Center will stay open until 10 p.m. each night. For more information about the Mesa Temple Garden Christmas Lights and a complete list of this year’s performers, see www.mesachristmaslights.com.
7. Boat Parade Of Lights (Lake Havasu City)
It’s hard to experience a Dickensian Christmas in Arizona, but you can come close during the annual six-week Festival of Lights, when the transplanted London Bridge and the adjacent English Village are swaddled in a million Christmas lights. Guests can view the lights in the English Village from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Another favorite Christmas tradition that has been celebrated in Lake Havasu City since 1982 is the annual Boat Parade of Lights on the first Saturday night in December. This annual event is sponsored by the London Bridge Yacht Club. More than 50 boats festively adorned with Christmas lights and decorations will pass through the channel and under the London Bridge as the parade tours the lake. The bright colored lights reflect off the calm water. Spectators can view the parade from the English Village or on the banks of the Bridgewater Channel. This is a major social event in Lake Havasu, so plan on arriving earlier in the day to stake out your spot. You can also bring your family to camp at Lake Havasu State Park to view the Annual Parade of Light Boats, or just bring your family to Windsor Beach for the parade while enjoying a BBQ on the beach. For more information or to enter your own decorated boat you can visit: www.lbycboatparadeoflights.com.
8. Little America Holiday Lights Festival (Flagstaff)
No holiday visit to Flagstaff is complete without exploring the illuminated winter wonderland created on the forested grounds of the Little America Hotel at 2515 E. Butler Ave. The combination of serene landscaping, stately trees, old-fashioned gas lamps, and colored lights provide an aura of Christmas magic. On opening night, the hotel offers complimentary cider and cookies, holiday music performed by local choirs, and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus. For complete details, see www.littleamerica.com.
9. Riordan Mansion State Historic Park Holiday Tours (Flagstaff)
This massive American arts-and-crafts log cabin, built by timber baron brothers Timothy and Michael Riordan, puts on its best dress of holly and holiday ornaments for the month of December. Celebrate Christmas in traditional fashion by touring the Riordan’s historic home festively decorated in turn-of-the-century style with wreaths, garlands, greenery, and a towering fir tree trimmed with old-fashioned ornaments. Daily guided tours through December include glimpses of folklore and traditions of Christmas. A variety of musical performances also typically occur. Reservations recommended; call the park at (928)779-4395. Riordan Mansion located next to NAU in Flagstaff on Riordan Road. For more information, see http://www.azstateparks.com/Parks/RIMA/index.html.
10. Pilgrimage To Bethlehem (Sedona)
This spectacular production is a multi-denominational community event. Costumed actors, dancers and singers will mingle with the audience prior to the musical. Enjoy animated storytellers and colorful characters as you are transported 2000 years into the past. The lavishly colorful wise men and their entourage will be present, as well as the angel’s appearance to the shepherds. Be enthralled at the inn keepers’ tales, avert the Roman soldiers’ harassment, and wonder at the humble stable which sheltered Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus. In addition there is an Ancient Bethlehem Market created with all the details. It features street vendors with their wares, Roman soldiers, scribes, prophets and beggars. The Christmas Concert and Live Nativity are free and seating is available on a first-come basis. For additional information about this faith-based community theatre production, visit the website at www.pottershandproductions.com.
Honorable Mention: Audubon Christmas Bird Count
Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the Audubon Society, proposed a “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the winter holiday season. Since the first Christmas Bird Count over a century ago, it has relied on the dedication and commitment of volunteer citizen scientists. Everyone who braves snow, wind, or rain to take part in the CBC makes an enormous contribution to conservation. For many people, this is an annual tradition that has passed from one generation to the next. In the process, they have created a vast pool of bird data that is the most comprehensive available for mid-December to early January. The count takes place within “Count Circles,” which focus on specific geographical areas. Your local count will occur on a particular day between the dates of December 14 and January 5. If you have more than one local count, they will probably be conducted on different dates within the CBC season. You can pick the most convenient date, or participate in more than one count. If your home is within the boundaries of a count circle, you can stay home and report the birds that visit your feeder. If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher. Anyone can participate, but your first step is to locate and contact the local Count Compiler. There is a small fee for all field participants aged 19 or older. For complete details and to find a CBC near you, see http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.