Christmas in San Jose

Did you ever wonder how Christmas was celebrated in the past in San Jose? When our first foreign settlers, the Spaniards, were here, the birth of Christ was celebrated by going to mass at the Mission Santa Clara, the closest church. The male citizens rode their horses for the three-mile trip. The women and young children went on the rough ride to the mission on a wooden-wheeled, no-springs caretta. After the Americans arrived, most of the celebrations moved to the family home or local churches.

The first lighted outdoor Christmas tree was a lofty, fifty-foot tall redwood tree on the front lawn of the powerful political boss, Louis Oneal. This was at South Tenth and San Antonio streets in 1930. (The tree is still there, surrounded now by San Jose State University.) Mr. Oneal had seen outdoor decorated trees on a visit to Portland, Oregon and brought the custom here. Neighbors copied the display, added decorated gardens and the area became the place to tour. Residents in the Alameda and North First Street area emulated the scene with their outdoor displays. The downtown stores (there was a lively downtown retail business then) had moving displays and people thronged to the area. Hart’s and Hale’s department stores vied for viewers by creating the largest and most interesting window displays. Even during the Great Depression wealthy residents extended the tradition until the blackouts of World War II brought an end to them.

I can remember the first decorating of a Christmas tree by Boy Scout Troop 2. In 1933 we found a sufficiently large redwood tree, cut it down and hauled it to our troop meeting hall. We didn’t have money to buy ornaments, but made colored paper chains and ribbons and strung freshly popped popcorn ‘round and ‘round the tree. For ornaments, we used pinecones. It wouldn’t have won any prize but we were very proud of our no-cost tree.

December 7, 1941 changed everything. World War II began, the blackout was imposed and we soon had armed troops on the main corners of San Jose. Young men like me were called up to serve our country and Christmas was a lonely time. After the war, things returned to a prewar status, but the population was expanding. In 1950, Don and Mary Lima owned a funeral home on Willow Street and they created a Christmas crèche on the front lawn of the mortuary. Each year the display grew and so did its popularity, clogging the neighborhood with auto and foot traffic. In 1970, after twenty years, the display was given to the City of San Jose and this became the genesis for Christmas in the Park. It was first moved to the Mission Street City Hall front lawn, but when Prop. 13 became law, the city cut back on its funding. A large committee of interested citizens was formed to carry on the tradition. In 1981, the decorations were moved to Plaza Park (now known as Cesar Chavez Park) in front of the Fairmont Hotel, where California’s first state legislature once stood. This is now a very popular event with an outdoor display, an ice rink and two large Ferris wheels nearby. The hundreds of animated displays draw a half-million visitors annually from all over the West.

During World War II there was a very sentimental song, which meant a great deal to me and to all the other servicemen and women at that time. The song contained the following words:

I’ll be home for Christmas,
You can plan on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe,
And presents on the tree.
Christmas Eve will find me,
Where the love light gleams.
I’ll be home for Christmas,
If only in my dreams.

It took most of us three or four Christmases to return. There must be many of our service people that now wish the same thing. Finish the job over there and we all pray you make it back safely.


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