When most people think of the holidays, it evokes old family traditions, children’s excitement and snowy Norman Rockwell vistas. Of course, our blow-’em-up, leave-the-kids-at-home, Tony “The Ant” Spilotro knuckle-busting desert city doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. But contrary to popular perception, Las Vegas does indeed know how to celebrate the season, as these traditions prove:
⇐ After 10 years at Sunset Park, the 2 million-plus bulbs of the Glittering Lights display moved to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2010. Some dates feature a live Nativity scene, because, you know, nothing says Christmas like driving your Buick around a race track lined with giant, light-up gingerbread men and slow-rolling past the baby Jesus. The only downside: Your $20-per-carload admission doesn’t give you the green light to blow by all the candy canes and snowmen at 120 mph.
⇐ Every year at this time, the Ethel M Cactus Garden drapes its four acres of cacti in multicolored lights for a slightly surreal display that echoes the Strip skyline in the distance. After you wander the garden, grab a hot chocolate or killer chocolate milkshake at the factory store. And if you haven’t gotten grandma a gift yet, you can always grab a box of crème liqueur truffles. She likes the ones with Amaretto.
⇐ Light up your holiday in a different way with Ellis Island’s Egg Nog. Shortly before Thanksgiving, the casino-brewery releases its high-proof salute to the season, a secret family recipe that involves egg, milk, liquor and other undisclosed ingredients (we’re guessing the warmth of good friends, children’s laughter and possibly whiskey).
⇐ For a complete winter wonderland experience, visit the Opportunity Village Magical Forest, which has been hitting families with holiday sensory overload for more than two decades. There’s a carousel, passenger train, forest of lights, gingerbread house village, mini-golf, Santa and dozens of other ways to distract the kids from asking you when they can start opening gifts. Visit on Anime Costume Night and completely trip out!
⇐ A more adult way to support Opportunity Village is take part in the Great Santa Run. It’s a nationwide event, but Las Vegas has won the “World Santa Challenge” several times. You can sign up solo or as a team, and don’t worry about the red suit: It’s included in the registration fee. So when you show up and see 15,000 Clauses roaming around, remember that you’re not hallucinating.
⇐ Downtown officially gets in the holiday spirit when the lights go up on the Fremont Street Tree and Menorah. Slotzilla gets some company when Mayor Carolyn Goodman switches on the tree, and then the first menorah “candle” is lit about a week later. The festive feeling carries on with holiday-themed musical acts and possibly zipline Santa action.
⇐ The Bellagio Conservatory Winter Holiday Display has been a must-visit since the casino opened in 1998. Past tableaux have included polar bears made of thousands of white carnations, Shaquille O’Neal-size toy soldiers, 1,600-pound chocolate houses, 40-foot Christmas trees and a walk-through snow globe. One thing we know for sure: There will be poinsettias.
⇐ What Bellagio’s display has been to Las Vegas Boulevard, Mystic Falls Park at Sam’s Town has been to Boulder Highway. The indoor forest has been celebrating the season for nearly 20 years with lights, wreaths, “snow,” polar bears, a daily laser show and, yes, a cowboy Santa.
⇐ Tired of folks trying to impress you with electricity? Watch some remarkable stunts at the Nevada Ballet Theatre’s annual production of The Nutcracker. The Sugar Plum Fairy, Prince Charming and the Mouse King will all leap and pirouette for your pleasure to the classic Tchaikovsky score. The dazzling set is designed around a giant “dollhouse,” where characters wait their turn to shine.
⇐ Not all holiday traditions are, well, traditional. The Double Down Saloon’s annual Pastramakah event satisfies the desire to celebrate the season with surf bands and salty sandwiches in a punk rock bar. Meanwhile, White Trash Christmas keeps it lo-fi on the big day, with Spaghetti-Os made in a coffee pot, dollar haircuts and dollar abortions (the former being only slightly less scary than the latter).
⇐ Don’t let the name fool you: The Bagel Ball is now the Light It Up Party, but the Jewish Foundation’s annual shindig is still a chance to mix, mingle, sip and be single. Prior to this party at Ghostbar, the foundation will let loose with the good cheer (both emotional and liquid) at their Vodka & Latkes event, which combines cocktails, shopping and, of course, potato pancakes.
⇐ The West Las Vegas Library hosts Kwanzaa 2014, the library’s annual celebration of culture and community. This year, there will be a marketplace with food and vendors, dance and yoga classes, spoken-word acts and a choir, as well as a performance of August Wilson’s play, Two Trains Running.
Through Jan. 5
Ethel M. Cactus Garden
Through Jan. 1
Through Jan. 4
Great Santa Run
Ellis Island Egg Nog
Available through December
Fremont Christmas Tree
Dec. 9 & 16
Winter Holiday Display
Dec. 6-Jan. 4
Mystic Falls Park
at Sam’s Town
Through Jan. 1
Vodkas & Latkes
Nevada Ballet Theatre:
Dec. 13-Dec. 21
Light It Up