Christmas in California

This post is a contribution from Bill Evans, a prominent West Coast banjo player, instructor and bluegrass entreprenuer. You can find out more about Bill and his various ventures on his web site.

Christmas in California isn”t really all that much different than Christmas in other parts of the country. It”s usually a little warmer in my particular part of the state at this time of year than it might be where you live but it”s also a good bet that the traffic is probably much worse here in the San Francisco Bay Area than where you are. However, some things remain consistent no matter where you live: wherever there are children and those seeking a renewal of spirit in these shortest days of the year, Christmas finds a home.

When I think of California, I think of diversity “? not only in our landscapes and climate but also in our people, our food and in our art and music (including bluegrass). It would just make sense that the holiday season is also celebrated in a myriad of ways. I want to share with you a special manifestation of California”s diversity that embodies the spirit of the season for me.

Not more than two miles from where I live in the town of El Cerrito (which Ron Thomason once translated into English as “the Cerrito”), is a vacant hillside that at this time of year serves as a home to a holiday display that attracts up to 70,000 visitors per year. I imagine that it must be like hundreds of similar Christmas displays around the country: shepherds tend their sheep in the foreground with three wise men forming part of a processional that winds up the hill to the town of Bethlehem, which is illuminated overhead by a bright star. Handel”s Messiah provides a soundtrack that rises just above the sound of the generators that keep the lights on until 9 p.m. sharp each night. By today”s standards, this display is simple and in fact much of its appearance is homemade.

It”s the story behind this particular Christmas display that makes it special and keeps me coming as a visitor year after year. Its creator was Sumar Shadi, a native of India born in 1900 who came to the United States and earned a degree in subtropical horticulture at the University of California, Berkeley in 1921. Rather than return to India, he remained in California, building a house for his family in the East Bay hills in 1937.

His holiday display got its start in 1949 when Mr. Shadi put up a lighted handmade star in the vacant lot next door. Each year, he added to the scene, creating people, animals and buildings that were all scaled to the contours of the steep hillside that served as his family”s vegetable and flower garden in the spring and summer months. Soon the hillside in December was filled with his creation and crowds began to flock to see the work of this retired Indian gardener.

Mr. Shadi remained in remarkable health until his nineties, when neighborhood volunteers began to help him set up and take down the display. Despite his increasing frailty, he continued to build new figures until 1996. In 2001, at the age of 101, Mr. Shadi passed away. Soon after his death, the city of El Cerrito became the caretakers of the display and moved it just down the hill to its current home overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Community volunteers and private donations keep the display up and running and maintained each year.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this story is that Sumar Shadi was a Sikh, not a Christian and he created the display as a gift for his neighbors and the community. When I visit the display each year, I think a lot about Sumar Shadi and the meaning of this special time of year and I also think about how lucky I am to live in California, playing bluegrass music.

These two photos are ones that Bill took in mid-December. Click either to see a larger version of the image.