Christmas Tree Lane: Celebrating the Holidays in Palo Alto for 76 years

 

In 1940, at the home of Judge Edward E. Hardy over the bridge table, four residents of the 1700 block of Fulton Street in Palo Alto came up with the idea for “Christmas Tree Lane.” Their vision was to place small Christmas trees along the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Fulton Street, lighting each one.

This Saturday, the families of Fulton Street will meet at the home of Colleen and Jay Backstrand for a neighborhood coffee. And in the evening, Christmas Tree Lane will be lit up for the 76th time.

The committee has grown, and decorations have changed – but Christmas Tree Lane remains a fixture in Peninsula families’ Christmas traditions. John Ward, whose wife, Andrea, grew up in Palo Alto walking down Christmas Tree Lane every Christmas Eve, says that part of the reason they moved to the street was because of the tradition. This year, he and his son fixed up a wooden cutout of Peppermint Patty. Last year, their family decided to switch from Santa Claus to the “Charlie Brown” theme.  The Wards built and painted the plywood cutouts of Charlie Brown and friends that dot their front yard – complete with Snoopy and Woodstock perched on a doghouse wearing Santa hats.

Across the street, Larry Christensen’s decorations have a Nutcracker spin. He says that nearly 40 years ago, when he and his wife first moved in, most houses didn’t have themes.

“There was a Frosty the Snowman next door, and there was a Santa climbing up on the roof, and elves down at the far block. But that was pretty much it,” Christensen says. “Everybody would decorate the trees in the mow strip and the city would come out and change the streetlights to red lamps.”

Inspired by a napkin from a cocktail party, Christensen asked his neighbor’s son, a student at Palo Alto High School, to make a Nutcracker decoration. Now the lone Nutcracker is joined by a ballerina and the seven-headed mouse king. The Nutcracker theme continues inside – Christensen says that he picks up nutcrackers whenever he sees them. Despite his enthusiasm for the tradition of Christmas Tree Lane, he says that he didn’t know about the tradition when he first moved to Fulton Street.

“It was mentioned, but we were living in Cupertino, so we really had no idea what we were getting into,” he said. “We love it but it’s a busy time. But it gets everybody in the spirit, so it’s good.”

Notable changes to the tradition are carefully noted on christmastreelane.org – a website that Larry Christensen and his son first built in 2004 to document the history of the tradition. Previously, the history has been kept in an album which was circulated each holiday season at the neighborhood coffee. Christensen says that “there was a lot of neat historical stuff in [the album] that I thought well, we ought to get this out so it’s a little more public. So we scanned a few things and we put together the chronology of what we could find from newspaper clippings and stuff.”

1942 is the one year since the lane’s inception that there were no lights on Christmas Tree Lane, due to a wartime blackout. The following year, despite difficulties finding trees and lights, the lane was lit again – the Palo Alto Times called the street a “symbol of the Star of Peace.” The committee planned carefully around how to keep Christmas Tree Lane during World War II. The website quotes a letter from Judge Hardy. He wrote in 1943, “As it is difficult to replace lighting units, and as it now will be impossible to do so for the near future, may we suggest that when a resident leases or sells his home he make some arrangement whereby the lessee or buyer can retain the use of the equipment. … Only in this way with your help can we be assured of the continuance of our “Christmas Fairyland Lane.”

Even now, when replacements are possible, decorations and lights have been handed down from one family to another. The history of the lane includes the energy crisis of 1973, when President Richard Nixon urged citizens not to decorate with lights for the holiday. On Fulton Street, lights on trees were replaced with shiny red bows, a silver star at the top, and lamp posts were wrapped in red ribbon.

Beyond historical events, the website’s chronology tracks the movements of Frosty the Snowman, Smurfs, and Santa Claus up and down Fulton Street. In 1947, according to christmastreelane.org, “Something new was added this year – a spotlighted Santa with a pack on his back, about to descend the Hardy’s Chimney (1830 Fulton). Missing are the seven dwarfs that in previous years were seen climbing over the house at 1850 Fulton Street (they were badly in need of a paint job and should be back again next year.)”

In 1974, Santa Claus was passed from the Hardy family of 1830 Fulton to the Stone family, at 1731 Fulton. In 1998, a “The Night Before Christmas” scene appeared at 1746 Fulton. The following year, a California brown bear and gingerbread men came onto the scene.

Scott Dougall’s home at 1716 Fulton had historically been “the Smurf House.” Since they moved in three years ago, however, there have been no Smurfs on his lawn. While his family has debated what decorations to put up, one thing was unanimous, he said. “No Smurfs.”

This year, Dougall will be lighting a tree in his front yard with sparkling LED lights, and stringing star-shaped hanging lights in the tree. In the past, the Dougalls also have had candy canes and a horse and carriage cutout on their lawn.

“I’m trying to respect the tradition but also doing something that suits my family,” Dougall said.

Part of the tradition on Fulton Street is the use of multicolored C9 lights on the small “Charlie Brown” Christmas trees that line the street. “The white light goes on top,” Jim McDonnell said.

McDonnell, whose wife, Susan, is the chair of the Christmas Tree Lane Committee this year, sources all of the trees. The trees come from The trees come from Oregon and McDonnell bought 70 trees wholesale with a resident of Willow Glen in San Jose, who buys 700 for his neighborhood.  

This year, Christmas Tree Lane will be lit from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. from December 16th to December 31st. The corner of Tennyson and Fulton is the recommended destination.  Instead of driving, to really take in the decorations, residents recommend parking nearby and strolling down the lane.