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Sierra Yuletide Towns

Two gold country neighbors revive the spirit of an old-time yuletide.

William Bourn Jr.'s cottage, Grass Valley, Calif., image
Photo caption
The "cottage" of William Bourn Jr. is built of stone from mine tailings.

In the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, about an hour's drive northeast of Sacramento, the residents of Nevada City and neighboring Grass Valley have laid claim to the yuletide season and rekindled it with enough holiday charm to make even the scroogiest Scrooge sing for some figgy pudding.

Beginning Thanksgiving weekend and continuing through mid-December, these twin burgs trundle out a pair of gala happenings: Nevada City hosts Victorian Christmas festivities each Wednesday evening, and Grass Valley celebrates its Cornish Christmas on Friday nights.

The pasty, a mini-pie of beef, potatoes, and onions, was a staple for Cornish miners. Today, Marshall's Pasties serves up several varieties, including ham and cheese, turkey, and apple. 203 Mill St., Grass Valley, (530) 272-2844.

Revelers flock to downtown Nevada City, where shimmering white lights give the mother lode architecture and Gothic Revival structures a storybook aura perfectly suited for merrymaking in classic Victorian style. Roasting chestnuts, wandering minstrels, and carolers in period costume who appear to have tumbled right out of a Dickens novel complete the scene. Wrap your hands around a cup of mulled wine or spiced cider and take a ride through town in a horse-drawn carriage. Tiny tots will get a kick out of the holiday tree that walks around showing off its colorful lights and ornaments.

Grass Valley's Cornish Christmas gives a nod to the men from Cornwall, England, who worked in the nearby mines. Much like the Victorian celebration, this nighttime fete offers up a straight shot of yuletide entertainment. It also provides hungry mouths with a chance to taste a pasty (pronounced PASS-tee), the traditional Cornish meat-and-potato pie. You might even catch sight of a familiar fellow with a white beard and a big red suit.

Long before the twinkle of festive lights began luring visitors, it was the glitter of gold that drew crowds to Nevada City and Grass Valley. Nevada City began as a small mining camp shortly after the start of the California Gold Rush in 1848. By 1850, the town's burgeoning population had reached 10,000 and residents voted to name their community Nevada, a Spanish word meaning "snow covered." ("City" was added to the name in 1864 to avoid confusion with the neighbor state to the east.)

The "cottage" of William Bourn Jr. is built of stone from mine tailings. Call ahead for tour times. 10791 E. Empire St., Grass Valley, 273-8522.

The same industry put Grass Valley on the map. Cornish miners dug more than 360 miles of tunnels at the Empire Mine, which operated on and off from 1850 to 1957 and yielded nearly 6 million ounces of gold. You can check out its former office, machine shop, and other buildings at Empire Mine State Historic Park and also tour the 1897 English manor home of the mine's owner, William Bourn Jr. Throughout the holidays, the Willis Polk–designed house is decked out in red ribbons, fresh garlands, and other period decorations.

Though it's easy to get caught up in local history, shopping for gifts is an equally enticing distraction. Let your feet snuggle into a pair of sheepskin boots or slippers at the Fur Traders in Nevada City. Over at V'tae Parfum & Body Care, treat your senses to the fragrant aromatherapy soaps and lotions. And don't forget to pick up some tasty bowser bagels or pup cakes for Fido at Scraps Dog Bakery in Grass Valley.

Bookworms will be happy to learn that Nevada City and Grass Valley tout themselves jointly as a "book town." With just over two dozen independent booksellers between them, the former mining queens are a literary treasure trove. Browse your way through Booktown Books, a co-op of 11 area print vendors including Lost Horse Books (everything equine) and Bud Plant Comic Art (Walt Kelly, Robert Crumb), or lose yourself among the 300,000 volumes at Ames Bookstore. It's all just one more chapter in the tale of two Gold Rush towns where anyone in search of some yuletide spirit can strike it rich.

Photography by Kathleen Norris Cook

This article was first published in November 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.