Some say you can tap into the magic of the holidays with each chop of a Christmas tree at an Apple Hill tree farm. Others see it in a child's eyes as the traditional dreidel spins during Hanukkah, or hear it in the singing voices of holiday carolers.
So what else sums up the magic of the holidays around the Sacramento area?
We start on a recent morning near the Sacramento Convention Center, a day that's as chilly as it is clear. The sidewalks are lined with families bundled in scarves and hoodies for the Sacramento Santa Parade. Horses with antler hats and glittery hooves trot through the streets, the queen of the Courtland Pear Fair smiles to the crowd, and candy canes are tossed to children well on their way to a holiday sugar high.
Everybody loves a parade, so they say, but we know there's plenty more seasonal spirit tucked away in the area's neighborhoods.
Now, it's a chilly night near 53rd and T streets in Elmhurst, and the spirit of the season can be summed up in one word: lights. They're shining and blinking everywhere you look, strung along bushes and trees and the roofs of houses (predominantly on 53 and S streets, but you have to get there via T Street), and Santa himself due for an appearance. Party buses, cars and plenty of pedestrians with mittens and hot cocoa in hand soak in the scene, which from high above might look like the inside of a snow globe.
It's been this way for about 14 years, a neighborhood tradition that starts at 8 p.m. every Thanksgiving. The light switches are flipped, and lookie-loos form a steady procession through the neighborhood until the new year arrives and the lights get boxed up once again.
Carol Menefee's mother lived in one of these houses until she passed away earlier this year. Menefee vowed to continue this tradition.
"It's a tradition for a lot of folks," said Menefee about the stream of visitors, as she showed a scrapbook of the neighborhood's holiday lights going back to 1997.
"It's just a fun party and it's a tribute to my mom. We've got the spirit, all right."
We find another bit of true holiday magic at the Camellia Waldorf School's 23rd annual winter fair.
Along with its Golden Ladle soup competition, won this year by Capitol Garage for a vegan mulligatawny, magician Bill Devon dazzles his elementary school-age audience with birds that miraculously appear from handkerchiefs. Presto!
The fair's leisurely marketplace, filled with arts, crafts and other homespun gifts, is the polar opposite of the seasonal rat race at shopping malls. All of the latest iPads, Nintendo DS consoles and other gizmos might as well be another world away.
What the kids clamor for here are handmade wooden toys sold by Turner's Toys (email@example.com; 916-725-8228).
No batteries or microprocessors are needed. They are simple toys, like those made by Santa's elves on the claymation "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV special, that harken to simpler times. Just about all that goes into the toy guns are wood, rubber bands and a few pingpong balls as ammunition. But in the eyes of a fourth-grader with energy to burn, they are spellbinding fun.
"And you can use large marshmallows instead of pingpong balls and eat the ammunition," said Paul Turner, who sells these toys on behalf of a Meadow Vista company called Creative Ideas.
The holidays also mean games for those of the Jewish faith. During Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, the four-sided spinning top known as the dreidel is used in a holiday game.
The objective: Players use simple game pieces, which can be anything from nuts to coins, and take turns spinning the dreidel. Depending on how the dreidel lands, game pieces are added to or taken from the pot. When one player collects all the game pieces, it's on to the next round.
The game's traditionally a bit of child's play, but there can be a competitive side, too. On Saturday, the Chai Stakes Dreidel Tournament will be held at Congregation Beth Shalom's social hall (4746 El Camino Ave., Carmichael) at 7:30 p.m. If you feel like you've got those lucky spins, it's $25 at the door to play. Call (916) 485-4478 if you have any other questions.
In the Latino community, the seasonal spirit can be summed up with a posada, which re-enacts the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Last Saturday, the streets of midtown featured dozens of participants in a community posada and it will unfold again Saturday.
It is sponsored by La Raza Galería Posada. Participants are asked to meet at 1022 22nd St. at 4:30 p.m., and will proceed starting at 5 p.m. to Azul Mexican Food and Tequila Bar, 1050 20th St. The event also includes Christmas carols in Spanish and a piñata for the kids.
This tradition continues in Folsom on Dec. 23. Three Stages at Folsom Lake College (10 College Parkway, Folsom; 916-608-6888) will host Posada Navideña, featuring holiday music, Mexican dancing and the beloved posada processional.
No matter what your native tongue may be, the magic of the season can always be encapsulated in holiday music. You'll find carols and other holiday tunes sung daily until Dec. 23 at the state Capitol (10th and L streets) underneath the Rotunda. Groups include Coloma Strings (Sunday), vocalist Ray Anthony Trujillo (Tuesday) and pianist Kevin Wilson (Dec. 22). Listen for the music around lunch time.
And when it comes to performing arts, you can't forget the classics.
It costs just $7 to see "A Charlie Brown Christmas" tonight and Saturday at Victory Life Church (800 Reading St., Folsom; 916-207-5606); the entry fee includes a reception with holiday treats after the show.
For those who need an annual reminder to not be so miserly, a production of "Scrooge" runs though Dec. 23 at Chautauqua Playhouse (5325 Engle Road, Carmichael; 916-489-7529).
But for some, the enchantment of the seasons can be felt from gliding around and around on a 7,000-square-foot slab of ice. That's where Alissa Taaca-Warren of Sacramento was found reminiscing about winters gone by, sporting an Oscar the Grouch knitted cap and warmed by a pint from the nearby River City Brewing Co. and a bit of shopping.
The holiday season means ice skating at St. Rose of Lima Park (Seventh and K streets, Sacramento), which runs daily save for Christmas Day until Jan. 16. That's also the date that Roseville Galleria will close its holiday rink.
"I used to ice skate when I was younger, with my mom," said Taaca-Warren. "It's nostalgia, so on the spur of the moment, I dragged one of my friends out there to go. I wanted to get in the spirit."
And there's plenty of that spirit to go around in Sacramento. We think back to all the families looking at holidays lights, the invites for holiday gatherings and especially the cheers from the crowd when Santa Claus himself appeared at the end of the Santa Parade.
"I'm thankful for such a big turnout for the parade with my name on it," said Claus, from his egg-colored carriage. "I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a great day and holiday season."