Anyone who thinks that holiday season in the desert is an oxymoron should remember that many of the traditions we celebrate this time of year — from Hanukkah to Christmas — originated in arid landscapes. Fast-forward several thousand years, and Palm Springs seems like the ideal spot for silver bells, chestnut shells and eight crazy nights.
The holiday season in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley stretches all the way from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, when the weather— warm, blue-sky days and chilly, starry nights — is close to ideal. And so is the slate of holiday-related events and activities, from special parades and concerts to outdoor markets, light shows and comedy.
The single biggest event is the Festival of Lights Parade (psfestivaloflights.com) which winds down Palm Canyon Drive through downtown Palm Springs. More than 80,000 people gather along the route to watch marching bands, equestrian groups, Disney characters and dozens of floats covered in millions of twinkling lights. This year’s parade kicks off at 5:45 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, starting at Ramon Road and ending several hours later at Tamarisk Road.
If you can’t make the parade, WildLights at the Living Desert (livingdesert.org) offers a similar experience nearly every night between Thanksgiving week and New Year’s Eve. On top of a rare chance to visit a zoo at night, the annual event includes huge holiday light displays; carol groups and choirs; camel rides and carousel; a sprawling model railroad village; holiday food and beverages; a kid’s craft area; and an after-dark version of the zoo’s popular Wildlife Wonders Show.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (pstramway.com) offers another series of holiday events, starting with Thanksgiving lunch or dinner at both of the mountaintop restaurants. On Sunday, Dec. 1, Emmy winner Lindsay Wagner flips the switch on the giant Christmas tree that crowns the mountain station. Local high school choirs will croon holiday songs at the upper station on the three weekends leading up to Christmas, and Santa visits the tram on Saturday, Dec. 21.
Annenberg Theatre at the Palm Springs Art Museum (psmuseum.org) celebrates that holiday season with several annual events and brand-new shows. Carol Channing, Mitzi Gaynor, Lorna Luft, JoAnne Worley and Lillias White are among the many Hollywood and Broadway stars who will take the stage Wednesday, Dec. 11, for “Sparkle,” a concert that benefits the Desert AIDS Project. Other Annenberg holiday events include “The Nutcracker” (Saturday, Dec. 7), “Helen Reddy Home for the Holidays” (Saturday, Dec. 14) and the oddball “Retro Holiday Light Show” of humorist Charles Phoenix (Friday, Dec. 20).
Down in Palm Desert, the McCallum Theatre (mccallumtheatre.com) offers its own slate of yuletide entertainment, starting with the Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano Fiesta Navidadon Friday, Dec. 13. Have a very merry “Rat Pack Christmas” at Sandy Hackett’s holiday tribute show (Saturday, Dec. 14 and 15), sing along with Willie Nelson and his family (Tuesday, Dec. 17) or celebrate the joy of the season with the Desert Symphony (Friday, Dec. 20).
The retro Palm Springs Follies, which just kicked off its farewell season, gets into the act with an over-the-top seasonal vaudeville show called “Holiday Follies” (psfollies.com) that runs Friday, Nov. 1 through Tuesday, Dec. 31. Dancing penguins and candy cane girls, Hanukkah bears and singing Santas are all part of this campy holiday cabaret.
Another blast from the past is the Rock-A-Holly Christmas Concert at the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway (Satuday, Dec. 21), an evening show that celebrates the music of Elvis and Frank Sinatra at the classic mid-century modern mansion where Elvis and Priscilla spent their 1967 wedding night and rented for two years (elvishoneymoon.com).
The Coachella valley also rolls out the shopping red carpet during the holiday season. The boutiques along El Paseo in Palm Desert and Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs tender all sorts of chic treats. Or splurge on a cool set of wheels at the holiday edition of McCormick's Classic Car Auction, Friday, Nov. 22 through Sunday, Nov. 24, at the Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs (classic-carauction.com). Among the sweet rides on the auction block this time are a 1956 Porsche 356 Coupe, 1957 Jaguar XK140 MC Coupe and 1977 Buick Century Station wagon from the HBO movie “Behind the Candelabra” with piano keys painted down the sides.
At the other end of the spectrum, browse for gift-giving bargains at the Palm Springs Open-Air Market (palmspringsopenairemarket.com) from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday in the parking lot of the Spa Resort Casino or the Indio Open-Air Market (maclinmarkets.com/indio.html), 4 to 10 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the National Date Festival Fairgrounds. And don’t forget VillageFest, the al fresco art, craft, food and clothing market that sprawls along Palm Canyon Drive every Thursday evening (villagefest.org).
—Joe Yogerst, Brand Publishing Writer