Prickly saguaros, towering palm trees, and massive red rocks: Arizona’s most recognizable features don’t exactly conjure up the classic Christmas.
But wrap some strings of lights around those palm trees and nestle a few rows of glowing luminarias among the red rocks, and you’ll have a Christmas scene unlike any other.
During December, when winter weather is taking much of the northern United States into snow-globe territory, Arizona’s desert cities are typically basking in sunny days in the 60- and 70-degree range.
But that doesn’t mean the Grand Canyon State forgets about Christmas. In fact, December is the month that many of Arizona’s communities shine brightest.
From major urban extravaganzas that attract thousands of holiday revelers each year to small-town gatherings that are big on tradition and warmth, Arizona offers a spectacular array of holiday experiences.
Here are six of the best places in Arizona to spend Christmas.
Christmas at Sedona’s Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village has a singular charm that mixes a Southwest mission feel with the best of the town’s gorgeous Red Rocks.
Each year, Sedona adorns its central shopping and restaurant district with thousands of luminarias — paper-bag lanterns that traditionally have candles set in sand inside. Luminarias are a significant symbol of the holidays throughout the Southwest, and at Tlaquepaque, they glow along the curving walkways and beneath the graceful archways.
For the past 46 years, Tlaquepaque has been the site of Sedona’s Festival of Lights, an event that features the lighting of the 6,000 luminarias. The festival lights typically takes place on the second Saturday of February.
Even before that happens, though, Tlaquepaque takes on a festive air in December with colorful strings of stars, string-light-wrapped trees, and snowflake ensembles.
Of course, even the brightest lights cannot outshine Sedona’s main show — the luminous red rocks that rise all around the town. One of the main advantages of an Arizona Christmas is that during the daytime, the warm temperatures allow for comfortable hiking and biking, while the evenings come with a brisk chill.
So, before bundling up for Tlaquepaque’s holiday light show, plan to work up a sweat on the miles of gorgeous Red Rock trails. It’s a Sedona tradition!
Add in a dose of the holidays with Las Noches de las Luminarias, and you’ll have pure desert magic.
Starting at the beginning of December and continuing throughout the month, the garden’s lovely trails are lined with 8,000 flickering luminaria bags. The lights are arranged among the garden’s lofty saguaros and spiky agaves.
No place does desert Christmas better than the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. The resort’s Christmas at the Princess event is not to be missed.
Visitors will know they’re in for a holiday treat as soon as they approach the resort and spot the row of brightly lit palm trees guarding the entrance.
That’s just the beginning of the spectacle, which features more than four million holiday lights, an ice-skating rink, train rides, a carousel, a Ferris wheel, ice slides, and a large S’moresland carnival area complete with fire pits for roasting marshmallows for the traditional campfire treat.
The Princess fully utilizes its beautifully landscaped grounds, positioning whimsical holiday characters (a fishing Santa, the Grinch, and the Little Mermaid) in its numerous ponds, and placing gigantic Christmas trees in its outdoor courtyards.
Now in its 12th year, the Fairmont’s Christmas at the Princess begins annually in mid-November and continues through the Christmas holiday. It attracts a quarter of a million people a year, drawing large groups of friends and families on busy December weekends.
Of course, Christmas in Scottsdale offers the best of both worlds. During the day, visitors to the Princess can bask in the warm desert sunshine, lounge by the pool, or play golf on the adjacent course. In the evening, they can immerse themselves in holiday wonder.
Since the 1980s, Prescott has been known as “Arizona’s Christmas City,” and the small central-Arizona city more than lives up to its name.
Prescott takes full advantage of its charming Courthouse Plaza in the middle of town, putting on an annual event known as the Courthouse Lighting. Dating back 67 years, the event occurs annually on the first Saturday of December; it features a Christmas parade in the afternoon and the traditional lighting ceremony in the evening.
Dozens of trees are lit up each year, and the stately Yavapai County Courthouse serves as the focal point for the festivities. On the evening of the Courthouse Lighting, thousands gather in Prescott’s chilly nighttime temperatures for a traditional ceremony that culminates with the lighting of the courthouse and surrounding plaza.
With a population of about 45,000, Prescott offers the best of small-town Arizona. Its historic downtown, anchored by the courthouse plaza and adjacent Whiskey Row commercial area, makes the perfect spot for a holiday with a hometown feel.
At an elevation of 5,367 feet, Prescott tends to be cool in December, and the evenings are chilly. Occasionally, the mile-high city enjoys a white Christmas.
The Courthouse Lighting is free of charge.
For a true winter Christmas, Flagstaff, at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet, is the place to go.
Designated as “Arizona’s Official Winter Wonderland,” Flagstaff has an annual average of 100 inches of snow a year and is the most likely Arizona destination to have a white Christmas.
On the first Saturday of December each year, the Flagstaff Parks and Recreation Department holds a Winter Wonderland and Tree Lighting ceremony in the historic downtown, featuring music, luminaria bag decorating, and hot cocoa. The event is free of charge.
Christmas in Flagstaff also includes a skiing and snowboarding vacation at the nearby Snowbowl Resort.
For the 51st straight year, Tucson’s Historic Fourth Avenue has been the site of a popular winter street fair.
The family-friendly Fourth Avenue Winter Street Fair brings more than 600,000 people to the heart of Tucson’s Old Pueblo each year. The fair attracts artisans from around the world, along with food booths, entertainment stages, and children’s activities.
A Tucson winter typically brings sunny days, so plan to shed those winter coats and scarves and enjoy the warmth of the Sonoran Desert.