City eyes changes to popular December Nights holiday festival in wake of COVID-19

People fill the Plaza de Panama during December Nights at Balboa Park in San Diego.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Balboa Park’s annual December Nights holiday blowout could look very different this year because of COVID-19.

City officials are exploring ways to put on the long-standing celebration while maintaining state and county safety protocols to prevent spread of the virus.

That won’t be easy. December Nights typically draws 350,000 people to Balboa Park over one weekend early in the month. For many, it’s San Diego’s kickoff to the holiday season.

Ideas for modifying festivities include a Taste of December Nights drive-thru food fair, and perhaps drive-in holiday movies, though city officials are still determining the feasibility of various scenarios.

“We are trying to be creative and bring the community together,” said Natasha Collura, director of special events and filming for the city, which puts on the event. “We are looking at doing something over multiple weekends because the amount of people is going to be greatly reduced.”

With decorated trees and festive lights at every turn, December Nights aims to bring the holiday spirit to Balboa Park. Families take holiday photos next to the giant gingerbread house or with Santa. More than 100 food vendors attend. There are rides for children and live performances. shopping and museums. At the International Cottages, songs, dance and food are on display from countries around the work, ranging from China to Italy, Ukraine to Peru.

Even though San Diego County has seen improving numbers of new coronavirus cases recently and was removed from the state’s Watch List Tuesday, big events like December Nights are likely to remain restricted.

But city officials insist they’re committed to putting on the festival, with modifications consistent with health orders.

“I don’t think people should compare the traditional December Nights with what we are hoping to come up with,” said Collura. “It will be very different. We are just in unique times.”

Officials expect to finalize plans in the next couple of months. Balboa Park’s museums also are looking at programs they can offer safely during the event.

“We are working through the details,” said Collura. “We’re in the middle of it right now.”