Yuletide trees spread joy in Old Palo Alto

Residents bond by expanding a Christmas tradition dating to 1940

Debbie Nichols' remembrances of her Old Palo Alto neighborhood at Christmas time do not include colored lights and boughs of holly. As a child, one memory stands out.

"It was always pitch dark," she said.

Nichols moved back to the family home on Bryant Street near Santa Rita Avenue after her parents died, but the neighborhood was as black and silent as ever, she said.

So three years ago she started a new neighborhood tradition.

With neighbors Paula Rantz and Margaret Lawrence, Nichols knocked on doors to invite neighbors to edge their street with small, lit Christmas trees, expanding on a tradition that began in 1940 with the now-famous Christmas Tree Lane in the adjacent Embarcadero Oaks neighborhood.

The first year, they had 18 trees; the second year, 78. This year, there are more than 160, and the streets are glowing with lights.

"Now it's come alive," she said.

The transformation of her neighborhood has spread beyond the Christmas season. Taking the courageous step of knocking on strangers' doors to ask them to host holiday trees and lights has opened the community to new relationships.

"My neighbors used to never talk to each other. We didn't know each other. There was no camaraderie," she recalled. "Last year, we knocked on a man's door and he said, 'I've lived here 25 years and I've never spoken to any neighbors.' At first, he was taken aback, but then he said, 'Sure,' he would take some trees," Nichols said.

A block party on Santa Rita became the impetus for Nichols' inspiration, she said. The newly formed Old Palo Alto Neighborhood Association started in 2011 by Nadia Naik and Camelia Sutorius got people talking. A series of block parties brought people out from behind their closed doors.

"We found that people were really friendly and we got to know each other," Nichols said.

She ordered the same-sized trees from the Palo Alto High School Christmas tree lot, and lights from Hassett ACE Hardware. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the trees were hand-delivered to all of the neighbors who had agreed to sign on.

"We had a party and delivered them with wheelbarrows and Christmas bells," she said.

Now people put up the lights themselves. Many are decorating their homes where no lights shone before, she said.

Sutorius said the transformation is amazing.

"What joy it brings. I think it has brought a lot of love. It extends beyond Christmas. We've grown quite a bit through the block parties, as we've grown together, and that's what's allowed this to happen," Sutorius said. "Debbie has been building this neighborhood feel. We connect on something in December, and when we see someone on the sidewalk, now we stop and talk. It really builds community."

The neighborhood of trees is a nod to the late Judge Edward Hardy, in whose home the idea for "Christmas Fairyland Lane" was created by four friends playing bridge in 1940, Nichols said. Now called Christmas Tree Lane on Fulton Street near Embarcadero Road, the idea came from "a common desire to promote Christmas joy throughout the holidays, particularly for the children of the 1700 and 1800 blocks on Fulton Street, and to foster a similar spirit throughout the community and Palo Alto," according to the original committee proclamation.

"We're not trying to be Christmas Tree Lane," Nichols insisted.

But the spirit of good cheer is spreading. The trees with two strands of colored lights and a white light on top are popping up on Tasso and Waverley streets and Seale Avenue, and Nichols and her friends are getting calls from residents on other streets who want to know how they can get in on bringing the holiday glow to their blocks.

Sutorius said she is delighted by the neighborhood transformation.

"People put their own kinds of dreams and wishes into their displays. Some of the lights are really spectacular," she said.

She first started connecting neighbors while trying to build an emergency-preparedness network. The block parties, neighborhood email lists and holiday trees are all part of building a strong and resilient neighborhood whose residents can band together in any crisis.

"Knowing each other is what it comes down to," she said. "At the end of the day, who has your back?"


1 person likes this
Posted by D&E
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 23, 2013 at 1:12 pm

BRAVO! My husband & I happened to be in the neighborhood and were delighted to see the tree lined streets.
What a wonderful tradition. May it grow in the coming years.
Merry Christmas

Like this comment
Posted by Savannah Grace Murphy
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 23, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Many mornings I walk from Waverly and Forest to Oregon and back and was not aware of the reason for the trees but it brought a smile to my face because it was obvious that it was someone's idea to create a generational tradition! Many streets in Willow Glen have a similar expression of the holiday! It's a lovely way to stay connected. Thank you for the efforts to make the community bright!

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Posted by LaNell Mimmack
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 23, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Hi Debbie
What a wonderful and sweet idea!

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 24, 2013 at 5:53 am

Excellent, Debbie (and friends). Merry Christmas!

Like this comment
Posted by Jeanne Wangsness
a resident of Atherton
on Dec 24, 2013 at 1:19 pm

This is a wonderful achievement; thanks Debbie & associates. Your example vividly demonstrates how creative efforts can develop community interaction, and how valuable this exchange can be in the lives of local residents. We need to follow this example throughout the mid-Peninsula! Happy Holidays!

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Posted by stanhutchings
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 24, 2013 at 3:36 pm

stanhutchings is a registered user.

I enjoy walking down Bryant from Loma Verda to Seale in the early evening, enjoying the glorious lights especially in Old Palo Alto. I was amazed by the Santa and reindeer flying high above the neighborhood, and the Christmas trees lighting my way.
Thanks to all the participants that make my walk so enjoyable this time of year.

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Posted by Tom Phillips
a resident of another community
on Dec 24, 2013 at 8:11 pm

My parents and I lived on Christmas Tree Lane many years ago and I'm very glad to hear the spirit of Christmas grow in my former hometown.

Tom Phillips, Mountain Home, Arkansas

Like this comment
Posted by How Come
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 27, 2013 at 9:56 pm

How come every year there are houses on Xmas Tree Lane that do not participate? I have always heard that to live there, one had to agree to decorate at Xmas time?

What if someone buys a house there and the new owner is not a Christian?

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Posted by lights are beautiful
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 29, 2013 at 11:03 am

@How Come,
I suspect people who don't participate are either traveling, sick, elderly, etc. I thought people had to agree to decorate when they bought there, too. But the religion of the buyer? Come on, do you really think Christmas trees, lights, winter decorations, Jingle Bells, sleigh rides, buying things, are Christian religious rites? Santa Claus has nothing to do with Christianity, by the way, and consumerism in lieu of the religious is actually considered a sacrilege by the very religious.

The vast majority of people who celebrate Christmas celebrate it as a secular holiday. Even people who profess to be Christians.

Do you hold back on celebrating Valentine's Day because it's named after St. Valentine? If people aren't Christians, they don't go to church on Christmas Eve and ponder the birth of Christ or read from the Bible. Believe it or not, there is absolutely zero about tree decorating, candy canes, and snowmen in the Bible.

I know Jews who get trees, decorate, and exchange gifts. It's not making a Christian statement, it's celebrating a winter solstice holiday, which comes to us from pagans anyway, as we all know. Somehow about 25 years ago, we all got hung up on conflating the secular holiday with the religious one, which I find just weird since those who are religious are taught how too much involvement with the secular holiday goes against and detracts from the religious values. Getting gifts and all the other stuff is so much fun, though, most Christians like to ignore that. Why should they have all the fun (just for practicing their religion so loosely)?

People who decorate with nativity scenes - yep, Christians. Frosty the Snowman? Santa Claus? Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer? Elves in the North Pole? They just don't have any association with Christianity, and those who think so are just robbing themselves and others of a fun community celebration in the cold of winter by confusing them.

I think this is great! How long do the decorations stay up? Thanks to Debbie and Merry Christmas!!

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 30, 2013 at 10:38 am

There is no covenant that declares Fulton residents have to participate. This is a free country.

All my life I can tell you that not every Fulton house participates.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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