Balboa Park December Nights, the City of San Diego’s annual kick-off to the holiday season, is the largest free community festival in San Diego, attracting more than 325,000 visitors over two days. The much-anticipated event brings together friends, families, and a host costumed revelers on the first Friday and Saturday of December.
Produced and managed by the Balboa Park Conservancy, December Nights treats visitors to over 150 family-friendly music, dance, and theatrical performances, representing a wide variety of cultural traditions, and more than 90 food and retail vendors, set amid historic buildings and gardens decked out for the season.
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December Nights History
Now in its fourth decade, Balboa Park December Nights grew out of the annual Christmas on the Prado event, which began in 1978 as a relatively small event put on by a dozen institutions along El Prado to celebrate the holidays. As the crowds grew, more diverse entertainment was added, hours increased, and the footprint expanded beyond the El Prado walkway, ultimately necessitating a name change to Balboa Park December Nights in 2002.
In 2004, the festival became a city-sponsored event, and the city contracted with different nonprofit organizations to manage December Nights on its behalf. Significant business sponsorships as well as food and retail vendors were sought to ensure the event remained free to the public.
In 2013, the Balboa Park Conservancy was contracted to manage December Nights for five years as the city’s partner. By 2014, attendance was topping 300,000, and the event has continued to be financially solvent.
December Nights was voted into the number five position in a USA Today online reader’s poll of the Best Holiday Festivals in the US in 2015.
December Nights Highlights
In the spirit of the holidays, participating Balboa Park museums open their doors free of charge for December Nights from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday evenings. Other long-standing December Nights traditions include food from around the globe at the International Christmas Festival at the House of Pacific Relations Cottages; the charming Santa Lucia Procession; the Del Cerro Baptist Church Christmas Story Tree in the Spreckels Organ Pavilion; unique gift shopping at the museum stores and Spanish Village; and musical and dance presentations by San Diego Junior Theatre and San Diego Civic Youth Ballet.
The event now hosts four official stages for local entertainment groups, performing a diversity of music styles ranging from zydeco to salsa. Many Balboa Park museums also host cultural performances in their buildings.
For the occasion, the Park’s landmarks, including the Plaza de Panama and Botanical Building, are lit up with dazzling light displays by professional lighting designers and SDG&E. In addition, opportunities to see Santa are located throughout the Park, and the Old Globe offers photo opportunities with the Grinch.
Community Engagement and Benefit
Balboa Park December Nights would not be possible without the active participation of dozens of nonprofit cultural attractions and entities within the Park; the City of San Diego Park and Recreation Department; dozens of community cultural organizations and performing arts groups; business partners and sponsors like SDG&E, Cox Communications, AT&T, XEWT 12, and Think Blue; and hundreds of volunteers.
This high level of public-private collaboration and contributions, which the Balboa Park Conservancy now facilitates, have resulted in a marked increase in attendance at December Nights over the past ten years, while ensuring that Balboa Park December Nights remains a free public event. At the same time, December Nights provides optimal exposure and opportunities for participating businesses and organizations to interact and explore new collaborations both within and beyond the event.
Participating local nonprofits, such as the Blind Community Center, Dahlia Society, and San Diego Floral Association, raise enough money during the event to fund their entire year’s programming, making December Nights a critical revenue source for them.