On Christmas Eve, after eating too much food and singing way off-key to selected carols, my family and I often take a stroll over to Fulton street to appreciate the decorations of Christmas Tree Lane. Usually we race back to watch It’s A Wonderful Life or to play a competitive game of Trivial Pursuit. Not this year.
Now, thanks to a group of community minded neighbors, our evening stroll has extended beyond Fulton to Santa Rita where rows of houses have placed small lighted trees along the road in the highest form of flattery: imitation.
“We wanted to spread the cheer,” says Debbie Nichols, the woman behind the idea.
Debbie lived on Christmas Tree Lane for eight years and loved the community aspect of the annual tradition. She was even Chairwoman of the effort back in the day. When she moved to Bryant Street she missed the connection she felt with her neighbors and so this year, she decided to harken back to the goals of the original founders and expand the tradition.
Christmas Tree Lane was conceived over a bridge game in the fall of 1940. Judge Edward Hardy had seen Altadena’s Christmas Tree Lane. He loved the beautiful lights and the sense of community they created as neighbors strolled the street and stopped to chat while appreciating the decorations. “Why not do it here?” he asked his neighbors and they did.
Their vision was to see Christmas Tree Lanes all over Palo Alto. Now, 71 years later, their idea has finally spread.
Debbie called on two neighbors, Margaret Lawrence and Paula Rantz, to assist her in reaching out to residents along Santa Rita and ask them to join in.
“People were amazing,” Debbie says. “I went door to door asking them to participate and everyone agreed.”
“Everyone” includes a number of neighbors who don’t even celebrate the Christian holiday. Margaret explained, “This is not about Christmas specifically. It’s about spreading the spirit of community and joy during the holiday season.”
The best part about it? Not just that the streets are aglitter or that cars actually slow down rather than barrel through as they are wont to do. No, the best part about it, as Debbie says, is, “It’s a fantastic way to get to know your neighbors. I didn’t know everyone on my street before, but now I do.”
Take a moment and think about that.
Debbie (and her team) wanted to build community. They wanted a chance to make connections even if it was only with someone who lived twenty feet away. And so they decided to take action.
“In Palo Alto, we all lead such busy lives,” Debbie says. “It’s not that easy to get to know your neighbors. We wanted a way to bring people together. We wanted to bring happiness to children and adults alike.”
It worked. Margaret Lawrence now has a roster with everyone’s name on it. “If there is an emergency or someone needs help, now they have a neighbor to call,” she says.
Perhaps, as Debbie hopes (and as Judge Hardy did before her), the idea will spread and Palo Alto will glitter not just on one or two streets, but on all streets during the holidays.
So, here is to Debbie Nichols, Margaret Lawrence, and Paula Rantz. And here’s to the hope that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change, if not the world, at least Our Fair City.
And finally, here is to the decades of committed Fulton street residents who have brought happiness and joy each holiday season for generations. They are just one of the many reasons I love living here.
Happy Holidays to all.