Christmas music and children’s laughter fills the air as people warm their hands with cups of Glühwein. Millions of lights guide their steps as they make their way through the surrounding tunnels and displays. There is a live band playing in an amphitheater and classic Christmas exhibits to enjoy along the way.
This is the Cambria Christmas Market.
The Cambria Christmas Market has been around for five years and takes place at the Cambria Pines Lodge, the largest hotel in Cambria. Lodge owner Dirk Winter, who visited more than 60 different Christmas markets in both Germany and Austria, thought that a market would be a natural fit for the Central Coast.
“They engage all your senses. It’s a community gathering and a place where you can just come out, have a glass of mulled wine or not and just stroll with your family and see visually interesting things,” Winter said.
When Winter, nicknamed “Mr. Christmas,” spends time with his own family during the holidays, he wants to create Christmas memories that his kids will reminisce on fondly.
Tawny Winter, one of Dirk’s children who works alongside him as a coordinator at the Moonstone Resort hotels, remembers Christmastime being a big deal growing up.
“He is all about Christmas and it’s almost a year-long thing. [When we were younger], he would prepare us months in advance to go to different Christmas events around the county,” Tawny said.
Now, Dirk and his family prepare months in advance to put on the Cambria Christmas Market.
George Marschall has been part of the planning process for the market since it began and is now the market coordinator.
“Here we are in this little town of Cambria, San Luis County, with a million lights that people can come and enjoy,” Marschall said. “We have really good German food, and we serve things like tamales and hot chocolate. It’s just a fun family experience.”
Glühwein, a traditional German hot-spiced wine similar to spiked apple cider, isn’t the only bit of Germany at this market. There are many vendors that carry handcrafted items from local artists and a handful of the vendors make and sell their own products.
“This is something you won’t forget when you see it. To hear things the kids say, they are just so excited to see the lights, and Santa Claus is here every night,” Marschall said. “It is a really cool experience walking through our property in the forest to see all the different light displays.”
And that experience doesn’t come cheap, according to Marschall.
“It costs upwards of half a million dollars to put this all together with the purchasing of lights, the labor to do it all, the product, the wood and the electricity bill it to get it going.”
There are an estimated 1.1 million LED lights that need to be put up throughout the property, and the vendor booths need to be re-built each year. Many people work on the event year round. In August, a few people make sure the trees are ready for the lights. As time goes on, the setup crew grows larger.
“About six to eight weeks out from the market, we have six people working on it full time,” Marschall said. “We have a designer on top of that, a maintenance crew, and then our construction crew comes in three to four weeks before the market begins to start putting the booths back together.”
When the market opened in 2011, there were about 20,000 visitors. Last year, around 46,000 people attended.
“The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was very slow for the hotel business, so this market has been an effective way of helping sell more hotel rooms, not just for my property but the rest of the town, too,” Dirk said.
Dirk recently received a five-year permit that solidifies plans for the market in the upcoming years when it comes to adding more lights and improving market operations. Ultimately, the goal is to take as many precautions as necessary for the market to run as smoothly as possible.
“A lot of the locals love it, but it can be hard for the ones who live right by the lodge,” Marschall said. “There’s always something going on here, but we are continuously attempting to reduce the impact.”
To Tawny, being able to see her father bring his love of European Christmas markets and his business endeavors together into an annual event many proves to her just how much of a visionary he really is when it comes to bringing forth big ideas into fruition.
“We kind of have this running joke that if you ever want to get anything done, just put a Christmas hat on it because then he’ll make it happen,” Tawny said.
The Cambria Christmas Market closed for its winter season on Dec. 23.