HOLIDAY GUIDE: Fill your season with the best bets for cupcake-making, candle-lighting, solstice reflection, and local retail
Union Square ice-skating rink Union Square, SF. www.unionsquareicerink.com . Through Jan. 16, 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. except for when closed for private parties, $10 for 90-minute session. Sweetheart, the rink is open, grab my hand and try not to twist an ankle as we glide in circles around downtown's living room.
Westin St. Francis sugar castle Westin St. Francis, Landmark Lobby, 335 Powell, SF. www.westinstfrancis.com . Through Jan. 24, on view 24 hours/day. Don't lick it. For although this ever-growing sweet behemoth which each holiday season occupies the lobby of downtown's classic luxury digs with its 1,300 pounds, 20 towers, 30 rooms, and sugar replicas of 2012's movers and shakers has a hold on our heart, its original dimensions were sugar-spun back in 2005. Incredibly made, undeniably festive, but altogether inappropriate for dietary purposes.
Jack London Square holiday tree lighting Jack London Square, Oakl. www.jacklondonsquare.com . Nov. 30, 4:30-7pm, free. Performances by Disney-approved pop stars! Reindeer petting zoo! Miss California 2012 and a kids dress-up station with costumes from the Oakland Ballet! You'll be hard-pressed not to find some holiday cheer at this annual lighting of Jack London's fir tree for the masses.
Oakland-Alameda Estuary Lighted Yacht Parade Visible from Jack London Square, Oakl. www.lightedyachtparade.com . Dec. 1, 5:30pm, free. Let those cheeks get rosy, it's boat-watching time. This yearly tradition sees the yacht owners of the East Bay putting their aquatic rides on display, stringing bulbs galore across decks and sails.
Festival of lights Union between Van Ness and Steiner, Fillmore between Union and Lombard, SF. www.sresproductions.com . Dec. 1, 3-7pm, free. Wiggle your nose at Santa at this explosion of twinkly tinsel and Cow Hollow reindeer — today Union Street puts on the holiday glitz and lays out the welcome mat. Cudworth Mansion (2040 Union) will be hosting a cupcake-decorating session from 3:30-5:30pm, at which Old St. Nick himself will make an appearance out front.
Golden Gate Park holiday tree lighting McLaren Lodge, 501 Stanyan, SF. www.sfrecpark.org . Dec. 6, 5pm, free. A tradition started by Golden Gate Park grandfather and San Francisco's first park superintendent John McLaren in 1929, the lighting of the tree returns to Fell Street for the 83rd year in a row. Accompanying fanfare includes live performances, carnival rides, and a visit from Saint Nick.
Great Dickens Christmas Fair Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva, SF. www.dickensfair.com. Fri/23 and Sat.-Sun. Sat/24-Dec. 23, 10am-7pm, $21-25. For an ace weekend drunk this holiday season, toodle over to the Cow Palace. Once ensconced in the warm period embrace of the Dickens Fair, you will have the run of five bars (absinthe!), a multitude of meat pie shoppes, hilarious accents, near-constant stage shows, and the company of "famous Victorians," including Charles Dickens and Her Majesty, the queen herself.
Family holiday crafts day Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, SF. (415) 554-9600, www.randallmuseum.org . Dec. 1, 10am-3pm, free admission, activities fees vary. Bring the kiddos to the always-free-admission Randall Museum so they can spend the morning making holiday decorations and gifts. Cap off the morning with a performance by Asian American performance troupe Eth-Noh-Tec and its fusion of ancient and contemporary movement.
Community Hanukkah candle lighting Jewish Community Center, 3200 California, SF. (415) 292-1200, www.jccsf.org . Dec. 8-14, 4:30pm, free. Join up with your neighbors for the Jewish Community Center's daily lighting of the menorah in the building's atrium. Attend the Shabbat celebration on Dec. 14 for a family storytelling session, grape juice, hallah, and Hanukkah gelt.
Bill Graham Menorah Day Union Square, SF. www.chabadsf.org . Dec. 9, festivities start at 3pm, menorah lighting at 5pm, free. Each day from December 8-15, a candle will be ceremoniously lit on the Bill Graham mahogany menorah, a gift from the famous San Francisco promoter to his city. But on the 9th, Bill Graham Menorah Day festivities will occupy Union Square, a beautiful beginning to the Festival of Lights in the city.
Public library winter celebration Bernal Heights Library, 500 Cortland, SF. www.sfpl.org . Dec. 12, 6:30-8:30pm, free. The library's got all kinds of free holiday programming this year, from cupcake-decorating and card-making to a magic show with a winter wonderland theme. Today's no exception: join the Bernal Heights community for a kid-friendly celebration featuring the Bernal Jazz Quintet, refreshments, and children's movies.
Frosting the Conservatory Conservatory of Flowers, 100 John F. Kennedy, SF. (415) 831-2090, www.conservatoryofflowers.org . Dec. 15, 11am-3pm, $10. Make your own ginger-greenhouse at this event amid the hothouse blooms of the Conservatory of Flowers. This events gets our thumbs-up for guaranteed toastiness, because being warm and cozy is a pre-req for Christmas cheer.
Jewish Christmas with Broke Ass Stuart The Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St., SF. www.makeoutroom.com . Dec. 25, 5-11pm, $10. Strip dreidel set to the tune of streaming Woody Allen, Larry David, and Sascha Baron Cohen footage sounds like our kind of Christmas. Such was the vision of DJ Matt Haze and host Broke Ass Stuart, who designed this kitschy extravaganza for all of you (Chosen and Left Behind alike) who can't stomach staying in on a perfectly good day off. Did we mention there will be a Chinese food buffet?
Kwanzaa celebration Bay Area Discovery Museum, 557 McReynolds, Sausalito. www.baykidsmuseum.org . Dec. 26, 9am-5pm, free. A traditional Kwanzaa altar will greet you upon arriving at the kids museum's celebration of African-American culture, featuring two performance (at 11am and 1pm) by African Roots of Jazz.
The Christmas Ballet Various times and Bay Area locations. www.smuinballet.org . Nov. 23 — Dec. 23, $25-65. Back by popular demand, the Smuin Ballet Company returns with this annual production, split this year into two acts: "Classical Christmas" and "Cool Christmas." Both promise eye-opening, energetic entertainment set to eclectic tunes from Elvis to klezmer.
A Christmas Carol American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary, SF. (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org . Nov. 30-Dec. 24, various times, $20–$160. Stressful election year and rumors of apocalypse tightened those purse strings? Exorcise your inner Scrooge at this classic stage production of Charles Dickens' terrifying ode to generosity and kindness towards diminutive children.
The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., SF. www.victoriatheatre.org . Dec. 6-30, Thu.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 7pm, $30. Our cover girl Cookie Dough co-stars as Sophia Petrillo in this now-traditional SF holiday stage production of the classic sitcom that employs more shoulder pads, even, than the original TV show. You'll never know a catty elderly network television star until you've seen her re-enacted by a drag queen. Buy tickets pronto, the shows usually sell out.
California Revels Oakland Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside, Oakl. (510) 452-8800, www.californiarevels.org . Dec. 7-9, 13-15. Fridays 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays 1 and 5pm, $20-55. Feast and family are cornerstones of this annual interactive period piece performance celebrating the winter solstice. Hoist your mead and turkey leg and sway to the music, friends, good times will be upon ye here.
The Nutcracker Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon, SF. www.cityballetschool.org . Dec. 8, 2pm & 7pm; Dec. 9, 2pm, $20. Yes, everyone does The Nutcracker. At this point, it's like the Rocky Horror Picture Show of ballet. (Would that ballet patrons donned Rat King costumes to attend!) Embrace the tradition, and check out the City Ballet School's production of a classic.
Charles Phoenix Retro Holiday Show Empress of China Ballroom, 838 Grant, SF. www.charlesphoenix.com . Dec. 12, 8pm, $25. The creator of the Cherpumple, a pie-stuffed cake concoction that rises to the dizzying heights of kitsch, humorist Charles Phoenix celebrates the retro in every occasion. Tonight, he regales the crowd with tales of his favorite SF landmarks, road trips, and yes, feats of food fantasy.
Holiday youth mariachi concert Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission, SF. www.missionculturalcenter.org . Dec. 14, 7:30-9pm, $15. Three mariachi troupes made of young people join forces for this exciting holiday program. The hat-dropping, guitar plucking action will be highlighted by Zenon Barron's Mexican youth folk dance class.
The Snowman Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness, SF. (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org . Dec. 22, 11am, $13.50-57. Even the smallest budding season ticket holder will find this film-symphony presentation of Joe Nesbø's classic children's book a welcome boost to their holiday cheer. The animated version of this story of a youg'n' whose bud is a Frosty-like chap will soar when paired with the world-class musicians of the SF Symphony.
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific, SF. www.koshercomedy.com . Dec. 22-25, various times, $44-64. There's nothing like having dinner on Christmas to up your alterna (or simply, not pan-Christian) cred. Add stand up comedy and you have a winning formula, which is obvious from the longevity of Lisa Gedulig's annual show. This year features yucks from Judy Gold, Mike Capozzola, and Adrianne Tolsch.
Clairdee's Christmas Yoshi's San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore, SF. (415) 655-5600, www.yoshis.com . Dec. 24, 8pm, $20. Everything could use a little soul in lives and the holidays are no exception. Come hear the sounds of soul-jazz vocalist Clairdee, and soak in her ensemble's rhythmic takes on Christmas standards.
"Holiday Memories" double feature A rare 16mm showing of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales will be accompanied by a screening of The Sweater, a tale of a young hockey player's passion for the sport, and the dangers that come of wearing the wrong jumper. Dec. 22, 2pm, Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon, SF. (415) 563-7337, www.exploratorium.edu 
Darkness and Light: A Hanukkah Meditation Retreat Jewish Community Center, 3200 California, SF. (415) 292-1200, www.jccsf.org . Dec. 9, 10am-5pm, $50-60. No prior experience is needed for this day-long workshop on finding the light within during the Hanukkah season. Sitting and walking meditation will be covered — the perfect primer for a month that can try the patience of even the most festive reveler.
Winter solstice ceremony San Francisco Zen Center, 300 Page, SF. (415) 863-3136, www.sfzc.org . Dec. 21, 6:15pm, free. Recharge on the longest night of the year in the peaceful confines of the SF Zen Center. The crowd here promises to be made of meditation newbies, Zen Center students, and all those in-between. It will also be your best bet to avoid jingles and tinsel, if that's what your body is craving at this point.
Reclaiming's Sing Up The Sun ritual Inspiration Point parking lot, Tilden Park, Berk. www.reclaiming.org . Dec. 21, 6:30am, free. Wake up before the sun does to greet it on this, the day of the year when it spends the least time out of its bed. A pagan celebration, you're welcome to bring musical instruments and a warm Thermos of liquid to the community gathering.
Celebration of Craftswomen Herbst Pavilion, Fort Mason Center, SF. (650) 615-6838, www.celebrationofcraftswomen.org . Nov. 24-25, Dec. 1-2, 10am-5pm, $9 or $12 two-day pass. The first edition of this alternative holiday fair took place 34 years ago at the now-defunct Old Wives' Tales Bookstore on Valencia Street with 22 female makers-of-things. Today, the event fills the Herbst Pavilion, features 150 juried artists and a mini-film festival. It's still the best place for feminist shopping, some things don't change.
Holiday Design Bazaar Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission, No. 109, SF. www.artsedmatters.org . Nov. 30, 5-8pm; Dec. 1, noon-6pm, free. An arts fair with 25 local creators, plus live music and refreshments that may well make a difference in our kids' art education. The event is a benefit for Arts Ed Matters, a group that is looking to build community support for art in schools.
Creativity Explored holiday art sale Creativity Explored, 3245 16th St., SF. www.creativityexplored.org . Dec. 1-2, noon-5pm, free. Shop at this studio for developmentally-disabled artists and half of your bill will go straight into their pocket — standard practice for Creativity Explored, which has been the real-deal spot for outsider art in San Francisco since 1983.
Paxton Gate holiday party Dec. 1, 3-6pm at Paxton Gate's Curiosities for Kids, 766 Valencia; 8-10pm at Paxton Gate, 824 Valencia, SF. (415) 824-1872, www.paxtongate.com . One of the city's most beloved families of taxidermy/kid's toys/nursery shops, Paxton Gate is turning two decades of age this weekend. What better time to shop there? And what better to get your face painted "Victorian-style" (?!), check out stilt walkers and an accordionist-ballerina duo, and eat snacks during the day at its kids location — then walk two doors down later that night for more circus freakery, door prizes and a Hendrick's gin open bar at 826 Valencia's pirate shop?
Palestinian Craft Fair Middle East Children's Alliance office, 1101 Eighth St., Berk. www.mecaforpeace.org . Dec. 1-2, 10am-5pm, free. Sip Arabic coffee while you paw through painted ceramics from Gaza, children's book, scarves, West Bank olive oil, and more at this chance to support a nonprofit benefiting craftspeople living in Palestine — a particularly salient cause in this year of war and turmoil.
Bazaar Bizarre Concourse Exhibition Center, East Hall, 620 Seventh St., SF. www.bazaarbizarre.org . Dec. 1-2, 11am-6pm, free. This traveling indie craft fair stocks all the twee and yippee you need to get your gift recipients in your pocket. New in 2012: a mini-version of Forage SF's Underground market, for all your small biz-sourced holiday edible needs.
Muir Beach Quilters Holiday Arts Fair Muir Beach Community Center, 19 Seascape, Muir Beach. www.muirbeach.com/quiltersfair . Dec. 1, 10am-5pm, Dec. 2 10am-4pm, free. Make a blustery beach journey that has time to spare for handicraft browsing. This annual gift fair stocks locally-made knickknacks by local groups (Muir Beach Garden Club included), and has more than retail opportunities. Hands-on crafts bars will stoke the creative fire of kids and big person shoppers alike.
La Cocina Gift Bazaar Crocker Galleria, 50 Post, SF. www.giftbazaarsf.com . Dec. 7, 1-7pm, free. You're not going to have problems finding foodie-friendly presents at this fair — but getting them safely to their intended destination sans bite marks might be a problem. La Cocina business incubator program graduates Clairesquares, Onigilly, Love & Hummus Co., Chiefo's Kitchen, and more will all have their wares for sale.
East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest Berkeley City College, 2050 Center, Berk. Dec. 8, 10am-5pm, donations suggested. www.eastbayalternativebookandzinefest.com . For the indie comic nerds on your list, you'll want to check out this expo of all things zine. Talks by New Yorker illustrator Erik Drooker and Go the Fuck to Sleep author Adam Mansbach spice up the fair's schedule and there's rumor of a dance party to take place at day's end.
KPFA Crafts Fair Concourse Exhibition Center, 635 Eighth St., SF. www.kpfa.org/craftsfair . Dec. 8-9, 10am-6pm, $10. Our public radio station hosts 220 artists and their wares for this no-brainer shopping weekend. Pick up unique wrapables from leather fashion to gourmet snacks to lotions and creams to pamper your loved ones.
Mercado de Cambio/The Po' Sto' market and knowledge exchange 2940 16th St., SF. www.poormagazine.org . Dec. 15, 3-7pm, donations suggested. We can pretty much guarantee you that there is no other gift fair that will have better hip-hop music. The Mercado de Cambio organized by POOR Magazine aims to counterbalance the corporatization of our holiday season. Go here for aforementioned live beats, indigenous crafts, Occupy gear, and POOR-published literature.
Renegade Craft Fair holiday market Concourse Exhibition Center, 635 Eighth St., SF. www.renegadecraft.com . Dec. 15-16, 11am-6pm, free. A DIY gift wrap station is one of the attractions at this one stop for cute gift shopping, which makes one of its two yearly appearances in the Bay Area for the holiday season. The Oakland Museum of California will truck out its mobile "we/customize" exhibit, and of course, there will be crafters: over 250 will have booths hawking clothes, accessories, home stuff, kid stuff — most handmade, and most awesome.