You can experience the holidays in San Diego in a multitude of ways, and learn how cultures from around the world celebrate the season. Here are some global traditions, festivals, and happenings around town, along with plenty of good eats.
¡Celebrar con tamales!
For many San Diegans, nothing says “the holidays” more than freshly made tamales stuffed with savory shredded chicken or Monterey jack and a poblano. For many Latino families, tamal-making gatherings are a tradition. Luckily for the tamal-less, plenty of local eateries are sharing their tradition with everyone. —Hoa Sanchez
In South Bay, the Ancira family has been sharing their talent for making tamales for roughly 30 years. Tamales Ancira offers freshly made staples such as beef and pork, as well as sweet tamales with nuts, raisins, and strawberry.
This farmers’ market favorite delivers a variety of traditional and modern tamales, like chicken with red mole, and vegan options such as spicy black bean and garbanzo, and green beans drenched in red sauce. You can catch this food stand at nearly every farmers’ market in the county, from Escondido to Ocean Beach.
A hidden gem in Grant Hill, Tamales Brenda’s is a food stand right in front of a home. The popular spot is home to affordable tamales ranging from pollo to queso. Craving a late-night snack? Brenda keeps her food stand open until 11 p.m.!
Interested in learning how to make this traditional dish? Northgate Market offers tamale-making classes throughout the month of December.
Feast of the Seven Fishes
Ask any Italian American, and they’ll tell you—the day before Christmas is a bigger deal than the big day itself. It’s the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a seafood extravaganza that stems from the Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat from mammals or poultry on Christmas Eve. Most of the day is spent in the kitchen, trying to perfect the tricky timing for fish dishes, all while sneaking bites in while you can.
You can head to restaurants that celebrate the event, like La Mesa’s Antica Trattoria, Cucina Urbana in Bankers Hill, and Cori Pastificio in North Park, when they serve typical Italian dishes like calamari, mussels, and clams, because why stop at seven fishes? —Jeanette Giovanniello
Asian Alternative to Christmas Eve
In the past, you would find Asian and Jewish families at Chinese restaurants for Christmas Eve for two main reasons: they didn’t celebrate Christmas, or they didn’t know how to.
My family fell into the latter category, as Taiwanese immigrants with no other relatives in the US. My mother’s attempts at making a Christmas turkey got better only when she stuffed it with Chinese sticky rice. These days, the tradition has evolved to be inclusive for many families, regardless of culture or religion. Going to an Asian restaurant before Christmas not only means less cooking, but a jolt to the palate before you eat turkey leftovers for a week. Christmas Eve at an Asian restaurant is like being part of an extended family (without the drama).
There are options throughout the city where you can feast on anAsian Christmas Eve dinner. In the Convoy District, longstanding Chinese cuisine stalwarts Jasmine Seafood Restaurant and Emerald Restaurant, along with newcomer Eastern Dynasty, will be open. The Asian Bistro is a late-night spot in Hillcrest, located where the historic Jimmy Wong’s Golden Dragon used to be. If you’re looking for an all-you-can-eat buffet, head to Seaside Buffet in Miramar. — Helen I. Hwang
Not Just for the Upper Crust
When you live in the British Isles for eight years, you quickly find out that afternoon teas are not just for aristocrats, like The Crown and Bridgerton might have you believe. Think of afternoon tea as three miniature courses from starters to desserts, accompanied with a steaming pot of tea to warm you up from the outside chill. You can have afternoon tea to mark a special celebration, or just for the hell of it. They’re offered everywhere from swanky hotels to local cafés.
The etiquette is to eat from savory to sweet. Tea sandwiches often include cucumber or turkey, and there’s usually something made with puff pastry, like quiche, sausage rolls, or Yorkshire puddings. Work your way up to sweet scones and mini desserts to finish off.
San Diego is lucky to have a plethora of tea rooms with distinct personalities. The service at Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe & Afternoon Tea in Mission Hills includes authentic British dishes like Yorkshire pudding and bubble and squeak (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and potato mash). Coral Tree Tea House is in a quaint 1887 Victorian home in Old Town’s Heritage Park Row. It’s filled with flowery paintings and fireplaces and—so they say—haunted by mischievous ghosts. Marlene’s Tea Room models itself as the elegant London hotel tea, complete with dainty details like Royal Albert teapots, in a quiet Del Sur neighborhood. And there’s always the Hotel del Coronado (hoteldel.com), which hosts a luxurious, high-end Victorian tea in its oceanfront Coronet Room. — Helen I. Hwang
Begin the countdown to Christmas at the annual Las Posadas celebration in Old Town. Las Posadas, Spanish for “The Inns,” represents Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay on the night Jesus was born. Old Town commemorates it on a different date each year (it’s traditionally a nine-day celebration leading up to Christmas Day) with an evening Las Posadas procession that’s topped off with a fiesta complete with live entertainment and good food. — Hoa Sanchez
The uniquely African American holiday celebration spans seven days, and the WorldBeat Cultural Center in Balboa Park hosts one of the largest Kwanzaa events in California. In 2020 the event was completely virtual, and this year it returns live from December 26 to December 30. Kwanzaa begins December 26 at 2 p.m. with an outdoor hip-hop swap meet, and the week is packed with music, plays, dancing, African drumming, poetry readings, and guest speakers.
Each day ends with a karamu (feast) of vegan black-eyed peas, collard greens, gumbo, potato salad, and cornbread. This year, there’s a four-day camp experience for kids where each day is dedicated to one of the principles of Kwanzaa, such as ujima, collective work and responsibility. Makeda Cheatom, executive director and founder of the WorldBeat Cultural Center, says many of the activities will be outdoors this year, and some will be livestreamed. She emphasizes that everyone is welcome to attend the festivities. “There are not a lot of places where you can experience a Kwanzaa, and this is an opportunity to learn about another culture,” she says. “That’s the mission of the WorldBeat Center—that we are all one.”
The Philippine American Society and Cultural Arts Troupe (PASACAT) hosts its 25th annual Parol Festival on December 13 at the Mingei International Museum. Central to the event is PASACAT’s collection of Philippine parols, colorful lanterns that traditionally adorn homes during Novena, the nine days before Christmas. The collection includes an eight-foot parol created by an award-winning maker in San Fernando, Pampanga, the Philippine city and province known as the parol-making capital of the world. Unlike the traditional star-shaped versions made of bamboo and tissue paper or cellophane, the giant San Fernando parol is shaped like a pinwheel and made of industrial materials to support its size and internal lighting system. PASACAT will also perform Philippine folk dances and host a food tasting featuring savories like lumpia and sweets like bibingka, a cake made with rice flour and coconut milk.
The San Fernando parol is free to view from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on December 13. Admission to the performances and food tasting that go from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. is $35. The exhibit of PASACAT’s traditional parols is free to view at the Mingei through December 31. pasacat.org —Christine Pasalo
Eat Your Way Around the World
The House of Pacific Relations in Balboa Park is a mini United Nations—this corner of the park hosts more than 30 cottages, each representing a different culture from Poland to Puerto Rico (nine new houses joined this year). For their International Christmas Festival, several of the houses sell a holiday treat representing their homeland as part of Balboa Park’s annual December Nights event. This year, December Nights will be a drive-through experience, and the cottages are celebrating by hosting an international desserts booth (the theme is cookies from around the world!) as a stop along the route. Pack up everyone in the car, get comfy, and enjoy the goodies after admiring the holiday light displays. The houses are also open to visitors from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.