If you’re hanging out in San Francisco during the holiday season, you might think all the Christmas cheer you could ever want is in and around Union Square. But locals know that to be truly enveloped in December merriment, you’ve got to head across the Bay to Christmas Tree Lane.
The 3200 block of Thompson Avenue in Alameda is often referred to as Christmas Tree Lane, a neighborhood with 55 houses that put your simple string of white lights to shame every December. While it may seem like a carefully orchestrated effort to put on such a display, residents aren’t required to put up any decoration at all.
“You just look like such a Scrooge if you don’t put anything up,” Amy Fenstermaker, a lifetime resident of the block, said.
Peer pressure aside, the stretch between High Street and Fernside Boulevard is glittering from end to end, each house decked out from sidewalk to roof with twinkling lights, towering lawn ornaments, seasonal figurines and sometimes even coordinated holiday music.
Fenstermaker grew up on the block — her grandparents bought the house where she now lives in 1939, just one year after the tradition officially began.
The block has been decorated every year since 1938, with the exception of during World War II, when for national security reasons, the area was kept dark during the holiday season. As the tradition grew, more effort was put into the homes and the central island, which hosts Santa during select evenings. Alameda Municipal Power donates about half the cost for the center lighting and the rest is covered by the residents of the block and any donations made. With increased notoriety, the block has become a Bay Area destination that Fernstermaker estimates grows every year.
“I don’t remember it ever being as busy as it is now, and I think a lot of that is because of social media,” Fenstermaker said. “When I was a kid everyone would just put lights up and maybe one of those old school wooden cutouts that was painted like Santa or a snowman. Now every year it’s just more.”
Steve Geahry, head of the planning committee for the block, said he visited for the first time 20 years ago when some friends took him to see the decorations. He said from that moment it was his dream to one day move onto the block.
Thirteen years ago, he made it happen. “We knew what we were getting into from a decorating standpoint,” he said with a laugh. “But what we didn’t know as well was that it’s such a neat neighborhood. We have this thing that people get together over year after year and that is really cool.”
He said it’s not a homeowner association requirement to decorate and noted there isn’t even a competitive vibe among the homes. “It’s really not a competition,” he said. “Whether someone puts up a huge blow-up snowman in their front yard or they put up a single string of lights, all that’s great.”
Speaking with Gearhy in mid-November on a sunny Saturday afternoon, he said his neighbors were taking advantage of the good weather to get a jumpstart on putting their lights up. While nothing is official or required, he said the residents try to coordinate as much as possible and the lane officially “opens” Dec. 1.
While you’re guaranteed an interesting stroll each evening, lucky visitors may also catch a performance from a local group. Tap-dancing Christmas trees, a decorated motorcycle parade and the local high school band make yearly appearances, to name a few.
And if you go from Dec. 8 to 23 between 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Santa will be seated on a sleigh in the middle grassy area to take photos with children.
“I’ll just say, Santa is helped out by all the dads on the block during that time,” Gearhy said.
If you can’t make it while Santa is there, visiting children can also drop a letter to Santa in his designated mailbox, located on the island. Every letter that’s dropped off with a legible return address will get a letter mailed back, courtesy of a local senior center whose residents write the responses.
If you’re dropping a letter off or just visiting to see the lights, both Gearhy and Fernstmaker said they recommend parking your car on a nearby block and then walking to look at the houses rather than driving by in your car, which can cause long traffic backups.
“I like Christmas Tree Lane most when I’m sitting in my house and I don’t have to go anywhere,” Fenstermaker said. “I like looking out and seeing all the happy people and the kids running around and I can see Santa. That’s really sweet, especially when I can do it from my living room.”
But don’t wait too long to visit. Gearhy said the block is probably one of the quickest to take down their lights when Jan. 1 rolls around.
“It’s such a quiet nice little neighborhood 11 months of the year and then one month of the year it’s like living in Disneyland.”
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