As headlines focus on the commercialization of the holiday season, Alamedans know there is one little corner of their Island where neighborliness and community spirit trump all.
Since 1938, residents of the 3200 block of Thompson Avenue have been making Alameda a little merrier each December as they transform their quiet street into a North Pole wonderland.
At some point during the past seven decades the street became known as “Christmas Tree Lane,” with thousands of people from all over the Bay Area descending on the block each December night and strolling past the block's elaborately decorated homes and yard displays.
How the tradition began
The Christmas Tree Lane tradition began during the Great Depression when two families of cousins who lived on the block decided to string lights from their homes to the then-small trees on the avenue’s median strip. They adorned the trees with handmade ornaments and displayed their own Christmas trees in their windows. Soon other neighbors joined in and the street became known around town for its lighted displays.
Today the displays have become much more elaborate and the trees in the median strip have grown so tall it now requires a truck with a lift to decorate them.
Sometime in the 1970s Santa Claus started making visits to the street. Neighborhood children began donning elf costumes and passing out candy canes to visitors. A mailbox for Letters to Santa was installed so children who missed Santa’s visits could nonetheless submit their wishes.
Marching bands, brass ensembles, carolers and tap-dancing Christmas trees have performed on the avenue and a motorcycle club even decorates their bikes with holiday light displays and cruises up and down the block one night each year.
Harbor Bay resident Kathleen Valerio’s grandparents were there at the beginning. “They were original owners on the block, purchasing their home in 1925,” she said, “In fact they used to own two houses on the street and they, along with their cousins, who also lived there, began the Christmas Tree Lane tradition.”
Her 93-year-old father, a retired Alameda dentist, Bernard Roberts, remains in one of the Thompson Avenue homes and for many years, until her death in 2007, Kathleen’s mother, Harriet Roberts, was a galvanizing force in the neighborhood keeping the spirit of Christmas Tree Lane alive.
During World War II, Kathleen said her parents recalled how the lights on Christmas Tree Lane had to be turned off during mandatory blackouts, lest they be spotted by enemy planes in the air.
She said during the 1970s energy crisis the tradition almost ended when the cost of electricity skyrocketed, but by then the annual event had become so popular it was decided it should survive.
“It was wonderful growing up on that street,” said Kathleen, who also raised her two daughters now age 10 and 20 there until the family recently moved to Harbor Bay.
“If you forgot to tell Santa something you could always run out there and say, Oh, Santa, I want just one more thing,” she said.
Growing up, Kathleen herself played the role of one of the elves and is a big proponent of keeping the magic of the season alive.
“Being part of the illusion made it more real for me,” she said, “The fun is in believing, not proving.”
Neighborhood loyalty and friendships keep tradition alive
Contrary to what might be called a suburban myth that has floated around town for years, according to Kathleen, people moving onto Thompson Avenue do not have to sign anything promising they will decorate their homes in order to buy there.
“It really is a matter of peer pressure,” she said. “Usually there is one house that is not decorated, but most everyone else joins in because they don't want to disappoint the neighbors."
Steve Geahry, the current organizer of Christmas Tree Lane, agrees peer pressure keeps everyone decorating their homes year after year. In fact, he said, many of the people moving onto Thompson Avenue today move there specifically because it is Christmas Tree Lane. Realtors marketing homes on the avenue do not hide the fact hordes of visitors troop down the street the entire month of December to ogle the lights, but rather promote it as a selling point.
Geahry and his partner, Mike, moved to Alameda in 1998 and immediately knew one day they wanted to live on Thompson Avenue. Their wish was fulfilled in 2006 when they bought their house in the middle of the block.
“I have a long history of being obsessed with Christmas lights,” said Steve. "When I was about 10 I entered a newspaper’s holiday home decorating contest.”
Steve knew he wanted to buy on Thompson Avenue because he could indulge his passion for Christmas decorating, but he said he didn’t realize the wonderful sense of community he would find on the street. "It really is a remarkable place to live," he said.
Each year, neighbors meet just before Christmas Tree Lane opens to the public for a potluck so they can get to know each other better and introduce anyone new who has moved in since the prior year. They also use it as a time to plug in any last minute slots on their volunteer roster to be sure the festivities go off without a hitch.
“It’s always a rather interesting moment during announcements at the potluck with all the children present when I have to discreetly say, 'Hey dads we have a few more spots we need to fill to help Santa out.'"
Indeed, clandestine plans are made by families to make sure their own children pay their visit to Santa on a night when their own dad isn’t “helping” him.
Steve said many of the decorations displayed in the neighborhood are original ones or have survived many years. When he and Mike moved into their home the former owners left behind an old Santa cut-out and antique icicle ornaments.
The communal decorations that are in the median strip including Santa’s sleigh, Santa’s mailbox, and all the lights for the big trees, are stored by Clay Pauli, a neighbor who Steve describes as a tremendously good sport to let his garage be taken over by the decorations year after year.
Another family, the Winterbaurs, historically have donated all of the candy canes passed out to the hundreds of youngsters who visit the street.
Future remains bright for Christmas Tree Lane
Steve, himself a computer professional, maintains a Facebook page for Christmas Tree Lane so visitors can post their photos and comment on what they’ve seen.
In another high-tech twist on the tradition, Steve said the neighborhood is considering upgrading to LED “green” lights in the future to conserve energy. The median strip trees alone are decorated with an estimated 2,500 lights.
He has every confidence the tradition will continue and shift with the times for more generations to come and said he especially delights in sharing Christmas Tree Lane each year with his nieces, age four and six.
“With the city’s support and donations from visitors and residents,” he said, “we are able to keep the center island lit.”
Some families remain living on the street for generations
Like Kathleen Valerio, Amy Fenstermaker is part of a multi-generational Thompson Avenue family. Her grandparents, Helen and Edward Jensen moved on the block in 1939, and her mother, Jerri Lee, who now lives on Bay Farm, grew up there. Amy and her two siblings were raised on Thompson.
Although she moved away for a time, eight years ago Amy and her husband Bill John and their two sons, Lucas, 10, and Liam, 12, moved from the Montclair District of Oakland back to Thompson. Now her sons are elves just like she once was as a child.
“It was so fun to be an elf,” she said, ”especially because of the unlimited candy canes.”
Amy describes the neighborhood as extremely tight-knit. During the summer, she said they have what they call “nights out” in which somebody in the neighborhood will spontaneously call for a “night out” and soon everyone emerges from their homes with lawn chairs, food and beverages to hang out on the median strip.
Three years ago Amy’s family planted a tiny new Redwood tree. It is still small enough to decorate by hand. She hopes one day it will grow like the other tall trees on the street and be there for future generations to enjoy further linking her family's past with its future. "My kids talk about buying the house from us one day when they grow up," she said. "They love this street."
As residents on the street age, younger neighbors step in to lend a hand with decorating. Crews of neighbors make sure that those too old or infirm to put up their own decorations have their houses decorated. Many of the volunteers know that one day, if they stay on the street, they too may need help.
How to get the most out of your visit to the street
“The street gets more and more crowded every year,” said Amy who has a good perspective on how it has evolved. She doesn't mind the crowds, however, she encourages people to park a distance away and head into the neighborhood on foot. There is no parking on the street. Cars slowly cruise past the houses in a perpetual long line.
“Driving in and out of the neighborhood during the month of December is always a challenge,” she said. “I remember how hard it was to back out of the driveway when I was a teenager.” Even residents who are experienced drivers recruit bystanders to help guide them out of their driveways if they need to leave their homes at night.
To help manage traffic flow the neighborhood has volunteer street supervisors, she said.
The full 2011 schedule for Christmas Tree Lane is not yet complete. Steve said some performers still need to confirm when they will pay a visit. He recommends going to the Christmas Tree Lane Facebook page for updated information.
Here is this year's general schedule for Christmas Tree Lane
From Sunday, Dec. 4 through Sunday, Jan 1 Christmas Tree Lane will be lit from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 9 Santa makes his first appearance from 6:30 to 8 p.m. and visits again every night at that same time through Dec. 23.
Want to help keep the tradition of Christmas Tree Lane alive?
You can drop off a donation in person when you visit or make an online donation here.