Strolling down Palo Alto's Christmas Tree Lane

Seventy-year tradition continues on Palo Alto's gaily decorated Fulton Street

Fulton Street, better known as Christmas Tree Lane, has transformed for its 70th year into a winter wonderland that some locals call "a conspiracy of good."

"When Christmas Tree Lane lights up, the holiday season has arrived," said this year's chairman Larry Christenson, who has called Fulton home since 1980.

For the two weeks before New Year's Day, residents place a row of miniature Christmas trees strung with old-fashioned colored lights on each side of Fulton and light them from 5 to 11 p.m.

Residents decided upon the yearly tradition over a bridge game in 1940, and since that year the street has only been dark for the holidays twice. The decorations have evolved over the years, and surveying the festive displays has become a Palo Alto family tradition.

Residents say that the event often draws three generations of family to the street and that the slow-moving cars of children staring with their noses pressed to the windows in wonderment spread holiday cheer on the lane and beyond.

"Seeing the lights through the eyes and enthusiasm of the kids is tremendous," longtime resident Bob Harrington, who raised his own son on Fulton Street, said.

Decorative themes for individual homeowners have changed since the tradition began. Some homeowners inherit the previous owner's decorations or get longstanding decorations from another home, and others decide upon a theme and make or purchase new decorations.

Dolly Mendelson, a 58-year resident, recalled the history of her decorations, which evolved to include reindeer, lights and a team of wise men, one of which points to a star.

She said that the atmosphere and community had changed over the years, and that the more elaborate decorations took some getting used to.

Still, Mendelson said, "it's been wonderful all along."

Mendelson's son-in-law Richard Boll, along with wife Linda, who grew up on the street, said that the annual coffee on the day of the first lighting brings old and new neighbors together.

"The bedrock part of is … when community is a lost concept and art, this tradition means that for many years (Christmas Tree Lane) has been and continues to be a community," Boll said.

While some long-standing decorations highlight Christian symbols, some newer decorations celebrate the season along more secular lines.

The tradition brings the community together, Kara Anderson-Reider, a resident since 2002 who grew up visiting Christmas Tree Lane, said. Her decorations include dreidel string lights, secular winter symbols and a black Santa.

"One time, I saw a girl who may have been African-American excitedly taking a picture with it, and it's nice to get people involved. Also, I've seen people coming by and saying 'it's Obama Santa.'"

This year will be the first in a long time that Palo Alto teacher and Realtor Paul Engel will not lead his students down the lane caroling, a yearly ritual since he and his then-wife Monica wrote "Let's Go Strolling Down Christmas Tree Lane" in 1983.

Rounding up enough students proved a challenge, but Engel recalled fond memories of the annual tradition.

"We tried to schedule it so that the songs were appropriate to the decorations coming up," he said, remembering songs celebrating toy soldiers and reindeer.

New traditions are being incorporated into the Christmas Tree Lane festivities. The American Disaster Relief Club of Paly, headed by Fulton resident Jacob Stern and Nadav Gavrielov, will be fundraising by selling hot chocolate during the five days before Christmas.

In the past two years, their hot chocolate has enabled them to donate more than $1,000 to organizations working in areas hit by natural disasters, Stern said.

The toy soldier draws children to the lawn down the street, which Anderson-Reider says is a particularly exciting decoration for her children on their daily walks of the Lane.

When she asked the homeowner if it was all right for her twins to touch the life-size toy soldier's case, she recalled, "the Ross family said they judge the success of the year by the number of handprints."

At least one child contributed a handprint to the case this Wednesday. Leo Brownstein, 2 and a half years old, strolled the street with his family, who had been coming to the displays for 10 years.

As he watched the gold-braid-clad toy soldier, he said with a smile, "I like doing this so much!"

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