by Frank Dunnigan
For those readers under age 55 who may not immediately understand the title of this month’s column, it’s time for a look back at some holiday traditions.
Growing up on the 2600 block of 18th Avenue in the 1950s guaranteed that we would be in full celebration mode, since our neighborhood had a long history of outdoor Christmas lighting. From the time of construction in the mid-1930s, each home had a custom-built wood frame for outdoor holiday lights around the front window. These frames, stored in the garage most of the year, were regularly passed on to new owners as the houses sold, and many neighbors added additional frames to surround the garage and front entrances with even more lights. Our block won several holiday lighting awards from the San Francisco Examiner, and was widely known for its community spirit—even with some competition from the 2100 block of 28th Avenue, circa 1970.
It surprises me today to see so many homes in the Outside Lands without a single representation of the holiday season. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs or non-beliefs, most people agree that the end of the calendar year is fast approaching and that a new year is close at hand. Those factors alone should certainly be cause for some form of outward celebration. Looking back, it is amazing how many decorating trends have come and gone.
Mom’s parents always opted for a fresh green tree that would sit atop a table in the front window, and be lighted with medium-sized old-fashioned multi-color bulbs. I can still see my grandfather, pipe jutting out of his mouth, as he lovingly placed each strand of silver tinsel on the branches. That was in the day when tinsel was made of thin threads of real metal—usually silver-color lead and not plastic—and the same pieces were saved and reused year after year. Grandma always made popcorn and then had the grandkids use a needle and thread to string it, interspersed with raw cranberries, because that’s what she remembered from her girlhood Christmases in Colorado. The lights and glass ball ornaments—a couple of fresh boxes picked up each year from Woolworth’s—took just a few minutes to assemble, but Grandpa’s tinsel project could go on for days.
Dad’s family always had a very big tree in the corner of the living room next to the front windows on 21st Avenue. Grandma had been saving decorations her whole life, and some ornaments still had candlewax drippings, suggesting that they were in use when she was a little girl growing up South of Market Street in the 1880s. Their tree had just a few strings of lights, as the old cords were wearing out, and Grandma was not one to change her traditions easily. In one of my favorite pictures, she is sitting on the floor in front of the tree, looking quite elderly (though a full year younger than I am today—and she lived another 20 healthy years), just as World War II was getting underway. Out of a dark background shines the enormous tree, along with her silent sense of satisfaction that as long as Christmas was coming, all would be right in the world—so long ago, so far away…
My parents initially had a medium-sized tree which they had flocked at the old nursery at the northeast corner of 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard—where the Masonic Auditorium has stood since 1963. It was a nice look, but the flocking quickly dropped off, making more of a mess than real snow, especially once I began toddling around by 1952. After that, we had a non-messy artificial tree, made up of thin white leaves, and lighted by two spotlights on the floor.
In 1959, we had the inevitable aluminum tree exactly once, still lighted by those two spotlights. We never did try the ubiquitous “color wheel” used by many, as orange and blue just didn’t seem to fit the mood. By 1960, we were back to the white artificial tree again, and Mom began to run wild with tiny clear lights, saying each year, “I think I’ll add just one more string this year.” PG&E experienced power surges when we plugged in that tree.
In the early 1970s, my parents bought a massive artificial green tree that required each and every branch (there were 144 of them in 12 different sizes) to be inserted into the trunk in exactly the right spot, and getting this monster standing took the better part of a full day. Mom was still into tiny clear lights, and Dad expressed his preference for gold ornaments, so for the rest of their days, that was my parents’ signature tree, in University of San Francisco colors of green and gold. A few years after Dad’s passing in 1980, I managed to convince Mom that a real tree, about four feet tall and set atop a three-foot table, was just what she needed, and my life at Christmas then became considerably easier!
For my own homes, I’ve always favored fresh green trees, with multi-color lights, and a wide variety of ornaments, with no two alike—a legacy of my quarter-century working in the retail industry and countless day-after-Christmas bargains. I opted for a time-saving backup a few years ago, and now have a pre-lit and pre-decorated seven-foot tree that collapses into a flat box just six inches thick. It’s not my favorite, but for artificial, it’s not bad, and with a set-up time of exactly five minutes, it’s come in handy on several occasions.
Even our next-door neighbors who were Jewish (though members of a fairly lenient Reform congregation) always displayed an enormous “Hanukkah bush” in their front window, decorated with a variety of non-religious ornaments such as reindeer, bells and snowflakes, and topped with a silver and blue Star of David. Their household mantra during December was a stern, “Nobody tells Grandma.” Even our few non-religious neighbors were right there with pinecone wreaths, poinsettias, smiling Santa faces, and an abundance of outdoor lights, proving that while Christmas has clear religious origins, it has also evolved into a universal winter holiday.
Throughout the house, certain items were always on display, from early December until the coming of the Wise Men on January 6th:
1) The pine cone in a small Dixie cup of solidified plaster of Paris, then hand decorated by me with tiny beads and glitter at Parkside School in Mrs. Beckerman’s 1957 Kindergarten class.
2) The manzanita branch from Uncle John, circa 1955, set on the dining room table and decorated with handmade snowflakes and tiny papier-mâché birds.
3) The small three-dimensional Nativity scene of printed cardboard on which Mom had lovingly written on the back, “From my breakfast tray at St. Mary’s Hospital—December 25, 1951, just after Frankie was born.”
The neighborhood shopping streets—Taraval, West Portal, Irving, Clement, etc.—were decorated with holiday wreaths, bells, holly, and tinsel, strung from light poles and Muni wires. Even the façade of the Twin Peaks Tunnel was set up to resemble a fireplace, with hung Christmas stockings. When we went to visit relatives in the Excelsior—just beyond the far reaches of the Outside Lands—outer Mission Street had a unique look with large “Mission Bells” made of a thin red plastic material, swinging from the overhead Muni lines. There was no mistaking—Christmas had arrived in San Francisco.
At home, Mom would be stockpiling ingredients for her Chex Mix as we eagerly awaited the “Night of the Lighting” on the second Saturday of December—a tradition that continued throughout the 1960s. Santa would arrive, courtesy of a San Francisco Fire Department engine, from the station up the hill on 18th Avenue, and then seated on his “throne” in someone’s garage entrance, he would listen to everyone’s wish list and distribute candy canes. This was also the night that my grandmother took us out for an early dinner at The Hot House at so that Mom’s party preparations in the kitchen were not disturbed. Mexican food, salt spray, twinkling lights, and the sounds of Playland still remain an indelible Christmas memory for me.
Once we returned home, the festivities began—neighborhood-wide open houses, with parents, kids, classmates, relatives, and friends all joining together in a wonderful block party that spilled in and out of every home. We truly knew our neighbors then, and many of those friendships continue to this day.
As the holiday drew nearer, Christmas cards began arriving—often with two daily mail deliveries. Each envelope contained notes from family and friends that provoked memories and reminiscences, and my parents read the notes and letters aloud as we sat down to dinner, so everyone knew who was doing what. After Dad died in 1980, Mom continued corresponding with his remaining World War II Navy buddies and their widows, and I maintained those contacts after Mom’s passing in 2002, until the last correspondent died just a few years ago. Like many families, we displayed cards on the mantel, end tables, around mirrors, and even hung from a string between two light sconces above the couch. Face it, when postage was four cents, people sent more cards. Just like West Portal Avenue, there was no mistaking it was Christmas when you arrived at our house.
Families with small children always opened their presents on Christmas morning, with happy smiles captured in black-and-white photos, showing everyone bundled up in new bathrobes and pjs. As we grew older and began spending more time away from home during high school and college, many families had a subtle shift in the festivities and began opening presents on Christmas Eve. Our family adapted to this quickly, and Mom declared that Christmas Eve dinner would be simple: hors d’oeuvres and dessert, with present-opening in between the two courses—and that plan worked well for decades. The adults were then ready for bed as the younger generation headed off to Midnight Mass at St. Ignatius—indulging in both the religious and social aspects of the event. While the parents were at church the next morning, many of us now-adult offspring would prepare a festive breakfast—in our house, it always included Grandpa’s favorite Polish sausage—to be served when the folks returned home.
Gifts were never of the extravagant variety that retailers suggest today. No one I knew ever received a set of car keys, nor costly electronics. The biggest childhood gift was usually a bicycle, though most were smaller items—toys and boxed games, clothing, and homemade food treats. Like most men of that era, Dad tended to give Mom totally practical things, and old photos demonstrate this clearly, showing a set of new kitchen dishes one year, a card table and chairs another time, and once, even a vacuum cleaner! Mom also gave Dad what he liked and wanted—cartons of Kool menthol filter cigarettes, Old Spice or Aqua Velva aftershave, and his annual TV Guide subscription.
Over the next few days, we always had a steady stream of visitors—old friends, distant cousins, and Mom’s many aunts and uncles, who would drop by for a visit and some eggnog. Small dishes of peppermints, along with Chex Mix and the ever-present two-pound box of See’s candy kept everyone satisfied from one meal to the next, as thick bayberry candles scented the air. Our old family friend, Martha, would always deliver a large box of her homemade cookies, with row after row of different varieties nestled in layers of wax paper, providing tasty desserts well into the New Year. As I sat back, listening to the threads of conversation with so many people, it helped explain the story of just how our family came to be exactly who and where we were.
Today, many of those who shared our Christmas celebrations are no longer with us, yet the nostalgic elements of the season remain, as clear as those twinkling lights that once glowed so brightly up and down dear old 18th Avenue.
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Page launched 6 December 2012.