Christmas celebrations and Prescott, Arizona, go way back. The town has officially been known as “Arizona’s Christmas City” since the 1980s. But long before that, Prescott’s quaint downtown made the north-central Arizona community a natural for Christmas cheer.
Even before Arizona became a state in 1912, the little mining town of Prescott was determined to celebrate the holiday, reportedly staging Christmas Eve gatherings at the town’s courthouse as early as the 1860s and 1870s.
Central to the festivities is the annual Courthouse Lighting, a longtime tradition that draws thousands of people to downtown Prescott to stand in the often-chilly night air to watch the illumination of the lights on the Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza. Other festive features have been added to Prescott’s Christmas repertoire over the years – from a gingerbread village to a musical showcase to a Frontier Christmas event.
Through the decades, Prescott has made the most of its deep Christmas roots. Here are six of the best holiday events in Arizona’s Christmas City.
1. Courthouse Lighting
Now in its 67th year, the Courthouse Lighting takes place annually on the first Saturday of December. After being mostly virtual in 2020, the event is set to be back in full swing in 2021.
As dusk falls on the evening of the lighting, all eyes turn toward the stately Yavapai County Courthouse for a Christmas program of carols and readings. It is all a prelude to the night’s main event — the flipping of the switch to turn on the thousands of twinkling lights.
Along with the decorations that are on the courthouse building itself, the lighting also features dozens of lit-up trees that surround the courthouse. Once lit, the Courthouse Plaza is a sight to see and the true star of Arizona’s Christmas City.
2. Christmas Parade
In the afternoon before the Courthouse Lighting, a long line of festive floats, marching bands, and walking groups made up of kids and pets parade through the streets of downtown Prescott for the annual Prescott Christmas Parade.
Currently in its 39th year, the parade serves as a solid lead-up to the evening’s festivities. Thousands regularly line the streets that surround the Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza to take in the local favorite.
3. Acker Night Musical Showcase
For more than three decades, downtown Prescott has been the scene of a celebration of everything music, holidays, and community-related with the Acker Night Musical Showcase. For the locals, the event known simply as Acker Night is a not-to-be-missed gathering on the streets and in the businesses of the downtown.
The event, which typically takes place the Friday after the Courthouse Lighting, features more than 100 musicians, all playing, singing, and dancing in Prescott’s shops, restaurants, and bars, as well as on the downtown streets.
The event brings a buzz to downtown unlike any other. It is especially beloved because it raises funds for art and music scholarships.
4. Gingerbread Village
With an electric train making lazy circles around the display, the village features wonderful creations that depict everything from traditional homes to groups of gnomes to a butterfly farm. The village is located in the resort’s lobby, and admission is free.
5. Frontier Christmas
For a chance to harken back to Prescott’s early pioneer days, the Frontier Christmas Open House takes place at the Sharlot Hall Museum on the evening after the Courthouse Lighting, offering a taste of a simpler time.
The museum’s beautiful grounds are located within walking distance of the Yavapai County Courthouse and make a great stop on an evening of holiday cheer. Cookies, cider, and carols are among the classic holiday treats in store at the Frontier Christmas event.
With luminarias lining the walkways, museum visitors can take in living-history interpretations, live music, and Victorian-inspired crafts. The event has a small admission fee for adults.
6. New Year’s Eve Whiskey Row Boot Drop
Even though it is technically a New Year’s event and not a Christmas one, the annual New Year’s Eve Whiskey Row Boot Drop exudes the same holiday spirit as the other Christmas City events.
Playing off the western heritage of Prescott’s historic Whiskey Row, the New Year’s party features a large, illuminated cowboy boot as a countdown tool. In two showings (10 p.m. and midnight) on December 31, the 6-foot-high boot makes its slow descent from its perch atop the historic Palace Restaurant & Saloon building as the crowd of revelers shouts out the countdown.
The Boot Drop is billed as the party of the year, and it annually attracts thousands to Whiskey Row to dance to live music, ride a Ferris wheel, and gather around fire pits. It all happens with the lit-up Courthouse Plaza as a backdrop.
Pro Tip: Although the Courthouse Lighting happens in early December, the decorations remain in place through mid-January, making the lights a nearly month-and-a-half-long attraction in downtown Prescott. And rest assured, it is nearly as magical to wander through the lights of the Courthouse Plaza on a random winter weekend or weeknight as it is to attend the big lighting event.