San Diego Community Christmas Center
& History of Christmas in Balboa Park
1945 to 1952 Christmas Downtown San Diego
After World War II, there was a growing community effort to present a non-commercial celebration of the true "Spirit of Christmas." This effort prompted the San Diego Chamber of Commerce to launch a Christmas celebration & tree-lighting ceremony at Horton Plaza park downtown.
Public support for the community Christmas event continued to grow & the event was moved to the Civic Center on Pacific Highway known today as the County Administrative Building.
1953 to 1978 Christmas in Balboa Park
In 1953, the popular Christmas celebration was moved to Balboa Park where members of the Chamber of Commerce, city employees, & volunteers from several organizations turned Balboa Park into a Christmas wonderland. International Cottages joined the celebration by decorating their houses and providing refreshments on Sundays.
Each year, 50 foot pines from the Cuyamaca Mountains were cut and brought down for San Diego's community Christmas tree.
After several years, the Chamber of Commerce turned over sponsorship of the event to the Community Christmas Center & the project came under the wing of the City Park & Rec Dept being financed through voluntary contributions.
The annual tree lighting ceremony at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion was held on the 1st Sunday in December with the Marine Corps Band & Douglas Duncan, the civic organist, presenting a combined 2 hour concert. Three & ½ miles of multicolored streamer lights twinkled over the Park.
Santa Claus arrived at the Organ Pavilion the 2nd Sunday, riding in a shiny red fire engine! There were candy canes for children & a choral program for the whole family. Organ recitals & other special Christmas programs were scheduled on the other Sundays in the park.
Throughout December, a life-sized Santa & his eight reindeer created by Paul Skinner, a local artisan, soared into the sky, with a red-nosed Rudolph in the lead. Six beautiful Biblical scenes created by artist Rudolph Vargas were set up at the Organ Pavilion & a nearby corral housed live animals from the San Diego Zoo, representing animals from familiar Christmas stories. Santa’s workshop was located in the Organ Pavilion & featured the Marine's Toys for Tots & Salvation Army.
An annual Christmas party for under-privileged children was sponsored by the Community Christmas Center & held at the Balboa Park Club for more than 200 children from Tijuana enjoying special entertainment, piñatas, refreshments, & presents.
By 1977, the 25th anniversary in the Park, the event was well established by the Community Christmas Center. A 7th Biblical scene was added to the Organ Pavilion called “Jesus in the Temple” created by Rudolph Vargas & large mechanical Toys representing Santa’s helpers were added to Santa’s workshop.
Instead of lighting a cut Christmas tree, the Community Christmas Center located a ‘living Christmas tree’, an Atlas cedar from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, in San Fernando Valley and planted the tree in Balboa Park. The nearly 45 foot high tree was decorated & dedicated as San Diego’s Official Christmas tree. However during storms in March 1978, the living Christmas tree was destroyed.
A new tree was found in November 1978 but was too late to use for the 1978 Community Christmas Center opening. It was still viewed, however, in full decorated glory in it's box & then planted at the new location by the Organ Pavilion in early 1979.
1978 - 2000 Balboa Park's Christmas on the Prado
In 1978, ten cultural organizations joined together with the Community Christmas Center & their tree lighting ceremony & Christmas concert to found of a new event called Christmas on the Prado on the first Friday & Saturday of December from 6pm to 9pm.
Balboa Park's Christmas on the Prado
Almost 3,000 visitors came to the Park to attend the 1st annual two-evening event filled with ethnic crafts, museum store shopping, Elizabethan dances & music.
International Cottages were decorated with items typical of their countries with the theme of "Christmas Around the World” & provided entertainment & international foods.
Over the years, Christmas on the Prado grew to become one of the largest, most popular events in San Diego County providing family-oriented activities for both young and old!
2001 to 2013 Christmas in Balboa Park & December NightsIn 2001, due to a wave of anti-Christmas sediment & growing diversity of the population in San Diego, the organizing committee of Christmas on the Prado decided to shift the event from a Christmas celebration to a more general community event that all San Diegans could attend.
With that decision & against the wishes of the Community Christmas Center and other organizations within the Park, Christmas on the Prado was renamed to December Nights ending a 48 year Christmas tradition in Balboa Park. Public anger mounted over the decision & due to lack of funding, the event was nearly canceled!
With the loss of the Christmas event & without much media coverage, the Community Christmas Center reestablished their historic tree-lighting ceremony & Christmas concert on the last Saturday in November, the week before December Nights.
December Nights survived it's troubling years & was reborn as a thriving community event filled with food, beer gardens, shopping, carnival rides, & entertainment mixed with remnants of the original Christmas entertainment & displays. Nearly 350,000 attend the two-day event yearly.
2014 - Present Children's Coalition Christmas on the Prado!
In 2014, the San Diego Children's Coalition moved their annual Toys for Toys toy drive to Balboa Park at the Casa del Prado. The event was held on Sunday, Dec 14th & owing to the location was named the Children's Coalition Christmas on the Prado. Due to its popularity, the event was moved the following year to the Organ Pavilion on Sat, Dec 12th.
Children's Coalition Christmas on the Prado!
In 2016 & 2017, the Community Christmas Center and various International Cottages have joined together with the Children's Coalition to host a combined Christmas & Toys for Tots toy drive named in honor & memory of San Diego's original community Christmas event.
The event will be held on Saturday Nov 25th centered around the historic tree-lighting ceremony & Christmas concert with the International Cottages decorated in their original theme of "Christmas Around the World."
The 4th Annual Children's Coalition Christmas on the Prado includes a fun-filled, kids & family-friendly evening with Christmas music & entertainment, the historic nativity scenes & gingerbread house, kids crafts, photos with Santa, artwork from various artists, and marines from Toys for Tots!
We are honored to have Paul Schmidt, Chairman of the San Diego Community Christmas Committee, as the Honorary Chairman of the new event!
Bring your entire family & celebrate Christmas in Balboa Park to benefit kids & families in San Diego County!