San Francisco

The Most Festive Events in SF This Holiday Season

Make this time of year wonderful.

Photo by Erik Tomasson
Photo by Erik Tomasson
Photo by Erik Tomasson

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Okay fine, January and February were probably a little more wonderful this year, but despite the fact that we are in the middle of a global pandemic, the holidays are still a time for (socially distanced) merry-making (with people in your household or pod) and lots of festive fun (just not after 10 pm or indoors). (Ebenezer Scrooge would truly be living his best life if he were around to experience this.) Seriously though, there’s still plenty of holly jollyness to be found-both in person and virtually (just be sure to double check all events since SF’s tier color is doing its best to stay on the naughty list). 

Look at adorable and adoptable animals in the virtual Macy’s holiday windows

Now – January 3
There are a lot of things we’re bummed we can’t do in-person this December, but subtly elbowing people out of our way so we can see the adorable and adoptable puppies and kittens in the windows of Macy’s is not one of them. Now we can just click on a link and watch all of the cuteness from our computers. No jostling for position necessary. Just beware that if you aren’t looking to adopt, that may change immediately.
Cost: Free to watch, but donations are appreciated

Meet live reindeer at the California Academy of Sciences

TBD – January 3
Golden Gate Park
The Academy’s holiday exhibit, ‘Tis the Season for Science: Life on Ice, is temporarily closed while SF is in the purple tier, but assuming we get out of it before January 3, you can meet Peppermint and Cookie, “a dashing reindeer duo,” under swirling snow flurries in the outdoor East Garden. 
Cost: Free with $36 (adult) ticket

Photo by Kellie Delario
Photo by Kellie Delario
Photo by Kellie Delario

Visit Santa at Nick’s Cove

December 6
Nick’s Cove/Marshall
Santa will be pulling up to Nick’s Cove on his “water sleigh” around 3 pm and though there won’t be any lap-sitting this year, kids and adults can peek into his workshop (the boat house), tell him their Christmas wishes, and get their photo taken before enjoying hot chocolate and cookies. Nick’s has plenty of outdoor dining, so you might as well stay and enjoy cocktails and local oysters. (If you prefer, you can also bring a blanket and get food to-go for a winter picnic.)
Cost: Seeing Santa, photos, and hot chocolate and cookies are all free

Buy a Christmas tree and help at-risk youth at the same time

Now – December 18
Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason/Marina
Pick up this year’s Christmas tree at the Guardsmen Tree Lot and all of the proceeds from your spire of comfort and joy will help provide under-privileged youth in the Bay Area opportunities to attend summer camp, after school programs, and more. The lot is following COVID safety protocols, but if you’re not comfortable choosing your tree in person, you can also order one for curbside pickup or delivery.
Cost: All of the trees are Noble Firs and range in price from $50 (2ft to 4ft) to $950 (15ft to 18ft)

Go back in time (virtually) to Victorian London at the Dickens Fair

Now  – December 24
The Cow Palace won’t be transformed into the winding lanes of Victorian London for The Great Dickens Christmas Fair this year, but you can still enjoy parts of it at home, including online readings from Charles Dickens himself, carolers, craft classes, recipes, and more. New holiday happiness is being released every weekend, so be sure to check back to see what merriment awaits. Looking to pick up some apothecarian goods, period crafts, 19th-century fashion, or cakes, cookies, or hot buttered rum mix? You can shop lots of treasures from Dickens Fair artisans online.
Cost: The “At Home” programming is free

Courtesy of Macy's Christmas
Courtesy of Macy’s Christmas
Courtesy of Macy’s Christmas

Visit a 83-foot tall Christmas tree in Union Square

Now – end of the holidays (usually January 2)
Union Square
The Macy’s “Great Tree” lighting ceremony was a private ceremony this year, but you can still go to Union Square to see the 83-foot-tall tree decorated with more than 33,000 LED lights and 1,100 ornaments and take a pic for your Instagram.
Cost: Free

Go on a “holiday hunt” at Mill Valley’s Winterfest

Now – December 18
Mill Valley
Mill Valley’s Winterfest is a little different this year (though there will still be some Santa sightings around town). Instead of getting everyone together in one place, the town has put together a scavenger hunt where businesses are putting silver stars in their stores or storefronts. Find and take pictures of at least eight of the 30 and send ‘em in to enter a raffle.
Cost: Free

Courtesy of Epicurean Trader
Courtesy of Epicurean Trader
Courtesy of Epicurean Trader

Finish your Christmas shopping at the Ferry Building

Now – December 24
Ferry Building/Embarcadero
In a time where none of us really needs more “stuff,” we are all about a gift that can be consumed and from chocolate to wine the Ferry Building has plenty of places to buy those. Plus, now there’s a new Epicurean Trader in the house, which has lots of stuff you want to eat, hostess gifts, and more. We like to think that cheese and a bottle of Glendronach Scotch is the perfect gift to give or to get or to just buy for yourself, but there’s also wine and sweets and everything else that makes getting out of bed in the morning worth it. Head West, a roaming outdoor marketplace, will also pop-up in the back plaza on Sunday, December 13 if you want to shop locally for art, jewelry, housewares, and more.
Cost: $ to $$

Watch a holiday improv show

December 4 – December 19 (Fridays and Saturdays)
Live streaming
BATS Improv, a professional theater company that’s all about having fun, is putting on holiday-themed improv shows every Friday and Saturday night through December 19. The first weekend is a holiday adventure with polls for audience members to weigh in at key moments, the next is a virtual “Office Holiday Party,” and the final is a “Feel-good Holiday Hallmark Movie.” What could go wrong? (Lots of things, probably. That’s half of the fun.)
Cost: Free with a $10 suggested donation 

Play Elf ‘n’ Go Seek at the zoo

December 5 – December January 3
San Francisco Zoo/Lakeshore
The SF Zoo’s holiday festivities are a little, ahem, tamer this year, but you can still visit holiday houses, including a life-sized Gingerbread House, play Elf ‘n’ Go Seek by trying to find elves (or at least their hats and shoes) hiding throughout, and enjoy holiday food and drinks. Reservations are required to ensure social distancing.
Cost: $20 for adults/SF residents

Courtesy of Peacock Meadow
Courtesy of Peacock Meadow
Courtesy of Peacock Meadow

Stroll through an enchanted lighted forest in Golden Gate Park

December 10 – February 29
Peacock Meadow/Golden Gate Park
Turn an evening walk into something magical. In honor of Golden Gate Park’s 150th birthday, Peacock Meadow is being transformed into a wonderland of lights with illuminated canopies as large as 30 feet tall. The “Entwined” sculptures-composed of 2,000 LED lights-are inspired by nature-raindrops, lightning, and wind-and were designed specifically for the park.
Cost: Free

Follow a beloved and well-worn nursery rabbit’s journey at a music and dance-filled performance

December 10 – December 31
ODC/Dance is keeping it real (yeah, we went there) and transforming “The Velveteen Rabbit” for the 2020 holidays with an interactive and digital holiday performance featuring festive costumes, music, and dance that both kids and adults will enjoy.
Cost: $35 for three weeks of unlimited on-demand access

Get a front pew seat for Grace Cathedral’s virtual Christmas concert

December 12 – January 5
Grace Cathedral’s beloved Choir of Men and Boys won’t be able to sing carols in person this year, but you can watch the concert on-demand, which is maybe even better because there’s no need to shower and/or put on your church clothes. The concert series also includes “Soulfoy Joy @ Grace,” with songs from Stevie Wonder and others, and a home sing-along. (There will also be free online Christmas services, including a re-enactment of the Christmas story, on December 24 and 25).
Cost: $15 to $60

Photo by Little Fang
Photo by Little Fang
Photo by Little Fang

Go to Taylor Mac’s holiday vaudeville show

December 12 – January 2
Taylor Mac is bringing a blend of music, film, burlesque, and “random acts of fabulousness” to the holidays this year. “Holiday Sauce …Pandemic!” is a virtual performance of Taylor Mac’s annual holiday show, which celebrates queerness and chosen family, and is always one of the highlights of the seasons. The event will be live-streamed on December 12, but you can also watch it on demand after. 
Cost: $10

Dance to Christmas songs at a Pink Martini concert in your living room

December 12
Several members of Pink Martini’s “little orchestra” will be performing a virtual concert featuring “inclusive and non denominational” holiday songs from around the globe followed by a live Q&A with audience members. (Get more info here, but please note that the ticket link on that page is broken.)
Cost: $11.50

See The Golden Girls Christmas Shows Live

December 17 – December 20
Grab a pal and a confidant (who is in your pod, of course) to watch a livestream of what has become one of SF’s best Christmas traditions: hilarious drag performers parodying two Christmas episodes of The Golden Girls. There will be sing-alongs, virtual meet and greets, and plenty of shenanigans. 
Cost: From $30

Get a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future during a radio play

December 4 – December 31
A Christmas Carol is getting an old fashioned makeover for 2020 in the form of a radio play. A.C.T. has reimagined the holiday classic as a “spatially-designed radio play” that you can stream wherever you stream things. There will be “merry melodies,” sound effects, and all of the hope and humbugs one would want or expect from this tale of reckoning and redemption. Tune in on December 4 at 6 pm for the opening night broadcast and listening party or any time on demand through the end of the year. There will also be a “family fireside listening party” on December 23 at 6 pm. No Scrooges allowed.
Cost: $40

Courtesy of War Memorial Opera
Courtesy of War Memorial Opera
Courtesy of War Memorial Opera

See visions of sugar plums wherever you stream things

Now – December 31
The SF Ballet was the first company in the US to perform The Nutcracker (on Christmas Eve 1944) and they’re not going to let a pandemic stop the magic of a Christmas tree that grows to be over 30 feet tall, mice who eat gingerbread soldiers, and so many waltzes to Tchaikovksy’s timeless score. Since you can’t attend in person, there’s an interactive virtual experience which includes streaming access to the show, as well as a tour of the opera house, and a chance to discover new things about the ballet and even learn a few steps from the performance.
Cost: $49 for 48 hours of access

Drink festive cocktails at an outdoor holiday pop-up bar

Now – December 31
Pacific Cocktail Haven/Union Square
Christmas isn’t going to let COVID get in its way. Miracle, a Christmas Cocktail Pop-Up Bar that takes place all over the world, is popping up at Pacific Cocktail Haven again this year. The bar’s three parklets have been transformed with everything kitschy and nostalgic, as well as a special menu of Christmas cocktails. Right now the parklet reservations are all booked, but there is a waiting list. Prefer to enjoy your merriment at home? You can also order holiday cocktails along with special glassware to enjoy at home. 
Cost: $30 deposit for tables

Watch a musical tale of The Steadfast Tin Soldier

December 1 – December 27
Video on demand
What we probably all need now is a story of a tin soldier who has more love and bravery than anyone who’s survived the last four years will recognize. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, this performance from Berkeley Rep will transport you to another place, but also won’t take more than an hour of your time. 
Cost: $20 – $25 for livestream performance and access to video on demand for 48 hours after livestream

Celebrate the holidays at the drive-in

December 4 – December 23
Rohnert Park/Sonoma/YouTube
Award-winning, Sonoma County-based Transcendence Theatre Company company is celebrating the strange 2020 holiday season with a night of seasonal song and dance at two drive-in theaters-and also online for those who don’t have a car or just don’t want to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. The experience will feature over 60 performers from Broadway Musicals bringing classic holiday hits to live with modern (and retro) technology. Don’t worry: There’s a sing-along component as well, although no one can stop you from rolling up the windows and belting all of the songs out during the entire show. One of many drive-in theater benefits.
Cost: $59 for GA; $199 for a three-course meal and wine for two people; $249 for a three-course meal and wine for four people

Watch and listen to the SF Symphony ‘Deck the Hall’ with festive favorites

December 5 – December 6 and December 19
NBC Bay Area and Telemundo 48, and on-demand on the Symphony’s website
The San Francisco Symphony, as well as some special guests, are doing their best to get you into the holiday spirit with an evening of holiday classics, like “Rudolph,” “White Christmas,” and more. The show is at 3:30pm on December 5 (NBC Bay Area), 11:30am on December 6 (Telemundo 48), and 3:30pm on December 19 (NBC Bay Area).
Cost: Free, but VIP packages, which benefit the Symphony’s myriad artistic, education, and community programs are available

Courtesy of Bricoleur Vineyards virtual cooking class
Courtesy of Bricoleur Vineyards virtual cooking class
Courtesy of Bricoleur Vineyards virtual cooking class

Take a virtual cooking class with Santa

December 13 and December 20
Santa’s as busy as ever this year, but he understands we’re stuck at home and wants to help make our holidays more delicious, which is why he’s teamed up with Bricoleur Vineyards in Sonoma to bring us interactive cooking classes where he’ll teach us how to make things like snowman pizzas (December 13) and holiday cookies (December 20). If his belly is proof of anything, it’s that the man knows how to cook.
Cost: Free

Spend Christmas Eve with the SF Gay Men’s Chorus

December 24
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is staying “(At) Home for the Holidays” with a virtual holiday showcase featuring fan favorites, modern takes on old favorites, and beautiful choral pieces. The show is on December 24 at 5pm, but you’ll get a link the next day for 72 hour access.
Cost: $25 single admission; $60 household; $150 for a VIP experience that includes treated and wine

Watch some ‘Kung Poa Kosher Comedy’ in a (virtual) Chinese restaurant

December 24 – December 26
Zoom and YouTube Live
Chinese food and Christmas might be a cliché for Jews, but it’s one we very much appreciate, especially when that cliché manifests in the form of a Jewish comedy show in a virtual Chinese restaurant. Yeah, normally virtual is kind of a bummer, but now even people who have to be physically in the same home as their family on Christmas Day can tune in to the fun. You won’t be disappointed; this usually-in-SF show guarantees super funny comedians and some of the proceeds go to support the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Tolerance” and The Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust. Only small disappointment? It’s BYO egg rolls.
Cost: $25 to $50Sign up here for our daily San Francisco email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun SF has to offer.

Daisy Barringer is an SF-based freelance writer who, in case it wasn’t clear, could seriously really use some spiked eggnog right about now. Tell her the best place in SF to find it on Twitter @daisy, please.

San Francisco

Where to Eat in SF's Chinatown, According to Local Experts

Just in time for Lunar New Year.

Photo by Brian John Godfrey
Photo by Brian John Godfrey

Last February, when there were only a handful of COVID cases in the United States, throngs of people stopped going to San Francisco’s Chinatown out of an unfounded fear that the neighborhood was more likely to have people with the virus. Business for bars and restaurants almost immediately dropped 50 to 70%. Unfortunately, despite our Chinatown being the oldest in North America and an important part of Chinese culture in the city since it was established in 1848, the tourists stopped going there. And then so did locals outside of the neighborhood. And soon, the bars and restaurants were mostly empty and the owners uncertain of how they could survive.

Joceyln Tsaih, an artist who made her way to Oakland by way of Taiwan and Shanghai, saw what was happening to SF’s Chinatown and other Chinatowns in the Bay Area and decided she needed to do something about it. In March of 2020, she created Save Our Chinatowns, an initiative to support Chinatown communities in the Bay Area through art, conversation, and shared love of food.

Courtesy of Joceyln Tsaih Instagram
Courtesy of Joceyln Tsaih Instagram

“I created it as a direct response to the COVID-related racism that was impacting Chinatown businesses in a negative way. I wanted to use my platform as an artist to create a way for people to support them.” Save Our Chinatowns originally launched as a GoFundMe fundraiser (eventually raising over $40,000), and soon, a few more women joined Tsaih’s grassroots efforts to create art and culture-focused initiatives to benefit their beloved Chinatowns.

Because here’s the thing. While Tsaih and the rest of her team believe San Francisco’s Chinatown is an important part of the city’s cultural makeup, it’s more than just that. It’s also personal. “I’m not originally from the Bay Area,” Tsaih explains. “I grew up in Shanghai, China, so Chinatowns across the US have served as a slice of home from me. Being in a Chinatown environment makes me feel immediately like I’m closer to home even though my family is in Shanghai and Taiwan and I’m very far from them.”

“I feel like in Chinese culture and in Chinatown, everything is largely centered around food. That is a big part of how we come together as families and the community and I want people to experience that,” she adds. Not sure where to start? Tsaih recommends the famous Dragon Gate. “That area has been kind of tailored to tourists. It’s very flashy and fun and an eye-opening way to start your journey.” (And it makes for a great Instagram photo as well.)

Want to know where to go from there? We asked the women behind Save Our Chinatowns about their favorite spots and what makes them their go-tos. After all, who better to get recommendations from than people who are using their free time to help save the neighborhood? Here are their picks:

Photo by Christine Calara
Photo by Christine Calara
Photo by Christine Calara

Kam Po Kitchen

“Kam Po Kitchen is an old-school Hong Kong style eatery that I adore. The staff has a no-nonsense attitude and service ethos that is actually kind of endearing and somehow comforting. It’s a spot that is beloved by locals as well. The roast duck over rice is my personal go-to, but everything I’ve had there has been delicious. As an added bonus, the portion sizes are huge!” Maya Kulkarni, a Berkeley-based artist and designer who is “very inspired by how food can shape identity.”
How to order: Call 415-982-3516.

Photo by Telstar Logistics
Photo by Telstar Logistics
Photo by Telstar Logistics

Sam Wo

“Sam Wo is a classic SF staple since it opened in 1907. Its casual, no-frills community has always been my favorite to go to late at night when the lines weren’t stupid long. Nothing beats ending your night out more than orders of BBQ pork rice noodle rolls and waiters forgetting to give you water after asking multiple times. Feels familiar and like home.” – Linh-Yen Hoang, a Vietnamese-American artist and designer whose work is “informed by her identity and experiences, both ordinary and nuanced.”
How to order: Use UberEats for delivery.

Lucky Creation 

“Lucky Creation is paradise for vegans. Everything is plant based and affordable, with a wide range of fake meats. The seasoning is subtle but complex, as opposed to in-your-face flavors of more tourist-oriented spots. You can’t go wrong ordering anything with bean curd.” Megumi Tanaka, an interdisciplinary designer, artist, developer, and expert on obscure information.
How to order: Call 415-989-0818.

Photo by Gary Soup
Photo by Gary Soup
Photo by Gary Soup

R&G Lounge

“When I think of R&G Lounge, I think of sitting at the round tables with family for special occasions. I also think of their signature salt and pepper crab and other Cantonese banquet style dishes. It’s a whole experience we’ve certainly taken for granted in the past.” Daphne Wu, an Oakland-based freelance web designer who is passionate about community building through food, drinks, and storytelling.
How to order: Use Caviar for delivery.

Lai Hong Lounge

“You can’t go wrong with Lai Hong Lounge if you’re looking for dim sum. All my favorite dim sum dishes are great here and even their egg tarts are the classic dim sum ones that can be hard to find nowadays! If you’re feeling fun you should order the custard buns because they come in the shape of little pigs.” – Jocelyn Tsaih
How to order: Use GrubHubPostmates, or UberEats for delivery.

Photo by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo
Photo by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo
Photo by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo

Golden Gate Bakery and Dragon Papa

“I’m obsessed with egg tarts, so when I’m in Chinatown, I always try to see if Golden Gate Bakery is open (their hours are very unpredictable), and if not, sometimes I’ll get a snack called Dragon Beard Candy. It kind of looks like floss, which is why they named it Dragon Beard, but it’s a sweet pastry. I like getting a box of that candy from there.” Jocelyn Tsaih, an Oakland artist by way of Taiwan and Shanghai, interested in utilizing art as a tool to amplify voices, raise awareness, and give back to communities. Her work is a reflection on human connection and identity.
How to order: Golden Gate Bakery is temporarily closed. Call 415-539-7728 for Dragon Papa.

Want to help save the Bay Area’s local Chinatowns? There’s a list of things you can do on the Save Our Chinatowns homepage, and right now, you can donate money and get a digital copy of their limited-edition zine for the Lunar New Year, titled “Have You Eaten Yet?” that includes recipes from Oakland Chinatown businesses.

Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer who was lucky enough to grow up going to the famous Chinese New Year Parade most years. She’ll miss it this year. Gung hay fat choy! 


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