Christmas for Free in Metro Vancouver

Gingerbread Lane at the Hyatt Regency. PHOTO CREDIT: John Lee.

The Christmas season is all about spending. But I’m not talking about money; I’m talking about spending quality time with friends and family. The bottom line is there’s no need to max out your credit cards if you’re looking for festive fun in and around our city––you just need to know where those experiences are.

When it comes to the holidays, I typically have the penny-pinching approach of Ebenezer Scrooge (usually without the grouchiness). So, when I launched my annual online Vancouver Christmas Guide a few years back, I made sure to include all the best cost-free Yuletide activities I could find in the area.

Not that you have to go full-on Victorian miser with your 2019 Christmas plans. But adding a sprinkle of gratis experiences to the holidays means you can redirect funds to other festive activities you don’t want to miss––including this year’s full menu of great seasonal shows.


Festive illuminations

Metro Vancouver is studded with sparkling holiday displays that won’t cost you a penny. Start with downtown’s eye-popping St Paul’s Hospital Lights of Hope, but keep in mind that donations towards the work of their Foundation are greatly appreciated. Next, head across to West Vancouver’s Dundarave Festival of Lights, with added free concerts on the four Saturdays before Christmas.

Lights of Hopes starts on November 14 this year. PHOTO CREDIT: Lights of Hope.

Give yourself plenty of selfie-time if you’re planning to check out one of the region’s biggest and most popular free displays. Hop on SkyTrain’s Evergreen Extension to Lafarge Lake-Douglas Station and––just steps from the stop––you’ll find Coquitlam’s Lights at Lafarge, a shimmering 1.2km lakeside walkway that’s lined with dazzling illuminations.

Alternatively, let the lights come to you. The beloved CP Holiday Train will be winding through the region again this year, arriving in B.C. on December 11. Travelling across the country, its loco and carriages will be accented with a multitude of twinkling lights––while scheduled stops in Pitt Meadows, Port Moody and Port Coquitlam will include free 30-minute live music performances.

The CP Holiday Train trundles into B.C. again this year. PHOTO CREDIT: Canadian Pacific Railway.

Downtown treats

 Back in the city, there are many additional ways to bask in the festive glow without breaking the bank. Wrap-up and stroll pier-like Canada Place to view a mini-forest of decorated Christmas trees, a towering moose traced in lights and the building’s soaring rooftop ‘sails’ illuminated with festive colours. And don’t miss their nostalgic Woodward’s Christmas windows––animatronic 1960s department store displays, complete with naughty elves, Victorian musicians and a gaggle of beady-eyed geese.

Don’t miss the Woodward’s windows at Canada Place. PHOTO CREDIT: Canada Place.

The bad news for 2019’s Christmas tree-huggers is that the Four Seasons’ annual display of decorated trees won’t be happening this year. But the nearby Hyatt Regency’s equally popular Gingerbread Lane––a sugar-dusted village of sweet-smelling constructions built by professional and amateur teams––is back, starting on November 30.


Alfresco freebies

Also returning on November 30 (for one day only) is CandyTown, Vancouver’s biggest free outdoor holiday festival. Organizers are expecting at least 15,000 visitors to roll in­­––and ugly Christmas sweaters are always welcome. Taking over the streets of Yaletown, look out for ice-carving and swordplay displays; live music and by-donation carriage rides; and appearances by Yuletide superstars including Santa and the Ice Queen.

The Ice Queen returns to CandyTown this year. PHOTO CREDIT: Jade Stone Photography.

The red-robed elf also stars in the 15th annual TELUS presents Vancouver Santa Claus Parade, which rolls through downtown on December 1. Wrap-up warmly and arrive early to stake out your spot. Then, head out to Surrey for the early evening Surrey Santa Parade of Lights on the same day. Too much for one day? Save yourself for December 15’s New Westminster Santa Parade instead.

You can also meet Santa face-to-face at Christmas in Kerrisdale. On December 7, 14 and 21, this popular Vancouver shopping neigbourhood will have roving musicians, cost-free carriage rides and an on-foot, white-bearded special guest wandering in and around its many stroll-worthy stores.

Santa Claus Parade: The Vancouver Santa Claus Parade is on December 1. PHOTO CREDIT: TELUS presents Vancouver Santa Claus Parade.

Like the idea of stretching your legs? Downtown’s subterranean Robson Square Ice Rink opens on December 1 and it’s free with your own skates (you can also hire them for $5). The Vancouver Christmas Tree Lighting event also takes place nearby on November 29, complete with cookies, hot chocolate and the switch-on of the city’s official 76-foot-tall tree. Return to the city centre on December 5 for Yule Duel, a lovely alfresco carol singing evening on the Art Gallery’s north plaza.


Yesteryear cheer

There are also several fee-free ways to tap into the warming embrace of Christmas nostalgia in Metro Vancouver. Start with the annual Heritage Christmas at Burnaby Village Museum, where you’ll find an old-fashioned winter wonderland of antique buildings decorated for the festive season. Be sure to add $2.65 to your budget so you can ride their magical 1920s carousel.

Step into Christmas past at Burnaby’s Heritage Christmas. PHOTO CREDIT: Burnaby Village Museum.

And if you’re out in South Surrey, head to Historic Stewart Farm on December 7, where Yuletides of old will be evocatively recreated with carols, treats, lantern making and Father Christmas himself. They’ll also be harkening back to the past at Richmond’s London Heritage Farm. The free-entry 1890s farmhouse will be decorated in Victorian finery and open on weekend afternoons between November 16 and December 15––hot cider included.

Nearby Steveston Village also has a full menu of freebie festivities this year. Santa will be arriving by boat at Fisherman’s Wharf on December 1; kids are invited to write letters to the North Pole at Steveston Museum from November 21 to mid-December; and if you hit the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Farmers’ Market on its December 1, 8 or 15 dates, you’ll receive free entry to the Cannery plus free access to its very own Festival of Trees.

Festival of Trees at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Steveston. PHOTO CREDIT: Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society.

For more Christmas activity ideas––and not just the free ones––check out the Vancouver Christmas Guide website. Created by Lonely Planet travel writer John Lee, the site is the only online guide to 2019’s festive happenings in and around the city. Profiling around 100 holiday events, shows and attractions, it is co-authored with Max the cat, who writes the site’s gift reviews and often appears on its @MyVanChristmas Twitter feed.

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