On December 21st, we’ll experience the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere — which might explain why candles and lights are such a big part of the winter holiday experience everywhere. Whether or not you celebrate a religious or cultural event at this time of year, everyone can enjoy the simple beauty of lights after dark. The East Bay has many incredible spots for viewing them. Here are some of our favorite places to see holiday lights…
The Holiday Circle of Lights, Mountain View Cemetery, December 1-January 1
A cemetery doesn’t seem like the most obvious place to walk around and enjoy a light display, but Mountain View Cemetery is in its 11th year of hosting holiday lights, and it’s been around this long for a reason. The lights are arranged around Mountain View’s welcoming fountain, reflected in the water, and the displays include a giant nutcracker, snowmen, penguins, a train of gifts, and much more. It’s a perfect place to spend an evening after dark with the family and entrance is free.
Christmas Tree Lane, Thompson Avenue, Alameda, December 2-31
The 3200 block of Thompson Avenue in Alameda is an arborist’s dream when the holidays roll around. All 55 homes on the block put up fabulous light displays, and the evergreen trees in the median are also decorated for the season. Strolling through the results is an experience to remember — and the tradition dates back decades, so you’ll often see several generations appreciating the sight and reminiscing on previous years. Weather permitting, Santa will be out to meet-and-greet (and collect donations).
Christmas Lights at the LDS Temple, Oakland, November 25-December 31
The beautiful light display that the church puts up every year is only one of many seasonal attractions — there will also be art displays, musical acts, live nativity activities, and several performances of Scrooge! You can enjoy it all for free (but will need tickets for some events) and can see the full schedule online, or just stop by at your convenience to take in the scenes.
Lights on Fourth Street, Berkeley, November 17-January 2
Lights are far from the only attraction on Fourth Street in Berkeley — there will also be puppet shows, caroling, live music, and a number of workshops (like blown glass ornaments or make-your-own stocking events). But the lights keep people coming back year after year to walk along the shopping district and dip into a boutique here and there to purchase a holiday gift or two.
Christmas at the Carousel, Tilden Park Merry-Go-Round, starting November 24
There’s nothing like an antique merry-go-round (Tilden Park’s was built in 1911) all decked out for the holidays, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another celebration like Christmas at the Carousel even if you do manage to track down another antique merry-go-round. The trees will be decorated for the holidays, there will be gingerbread and hot chocolate, and Santa and Olaf (from Frozen) are also making photo appearances on select days.
Zoo Lights at the Oakland Zoo, December 1-January 1
Nothing goes with holiday lights like wild animals and gondola rides, which is why Zoo Lights at the Oakland Zoo are a perennial favorite in the East Bay. This year, the zoo has added laser light shows to its usual roster of Santa visits, musical interludes, and other festivities. And the gondola ride will give you a bird’s-eye-view of some of the best light displays in Oakland.
Picardy Drive in Oakland
Since the Great Depression, a string of homes on Picardy Drive have celebrated their connection and the neighborhood by linking their homes together with a chain of holiday lights. It’s a tradition so established and ingrained that a documentary was made about the lights on Picardy Drive, and the neighbors will keep the chain lit until early January.
Fairy Winterland at Children’s Fairyland, Oakland, December 15-23
Only in Oakland would you find such a thing as a children’s storybook theme park, and therefore it follows that only in Oakland would you find such a thing as Fairy Winterland. The festival of lights gives a nod to celebrations of all cultures, and other events include puppet shows, storytelling, and holiday-themed rides.
Sundar Shadi Holiday Display, El Cerrito, December 10-26
The folk-art handmade Christmas scene is one of the seasonal gems of the area. Sundar Shadi began crafting his own display pieces in 1949; with the help of his wife, Dorothy, the display has expanded to more than 100 buildings in the city (and if you count the sheep on the hillside, you’ll reach more than 60). Today, volunteers recreate his annual masterpiece every year and work as “shepherds” on site to answer visitor questions.
Widmer World in Pleasanton, December 1-31
It’s a bit of a drive, but if you want to see what it looks like when an individual family goes all-out for the holiday season, then you’ll have to make time to bypass Widmer World at some point in the next month. The Widmer family started scaling up their holiday decorations in 1980 and have been adding to the displays annually ever since — and moving to LED lights in 2000 gave them the ability to really turn it on. Today, their entire property (just under one acre) gets fully lit for the season.
The Berkeley Luminaria Walk, December 24
If you take the BART to the North Berkeley station on Christmas Eve, you’ll see a sight to warm the heart: hundreds and hundreds (if not thousands) of luminarias, or farolitos, lining the sidewalks of Berkeley Way, Rose Street, Grant, and California Street. These small paper lanterns are popular in the Southwest and are made of sand, paper bags and candles … but when you see the cumulative effect, you’ll understand that sometimes the simplest things make the most beautiful tributes to the season.