Palo Alto History. Org

Christmas Tree Lane: A Yuletide Tradition

While Palo Alto has many of the attractions that you would expect to find in a big city --- thriving shopping districts, rich cultural life, world-class restaurants and cafes --- it has also retained many of the charming traits of a ‘50s-era small town.  The city government has to get some of the credit for limiting growth, maintaining historic buildings and generally keeping construction at a human-sized scale (the few exceptions like City Hall and the Palo Alto Office Center stick out like sore thumbs). There are scenes in today’s Palo Alto which can appear surprisingly quaint for a city that lies in the heart of new-age Silicon Valley.

Picture a crossing guard waving a swarm of middle school bikers across Embarcadero as they ride back home to their neighborhoods from Jordan. Or think of Saturday night on University Avenue as movie-goers stroll from the Stanford Theatre hosting a Jimmy Stewart revival, past diagonally parked cars to get a treat
from Gelato Classico. Very Norman Rockwell.

But nothing Palo Alto has to offer can out-Rockwell Christmas Tree Lane --- AKA Fulton Street --- where, in 1940, neighbors spontaneously decided to decorate the two blocks from Embarcadero to Seale Avenue with Christmas trees and lights. More than 60 years later, on any night during the holiday season, you can see dozens of cars slowly rolling down Fulton Street with only their parking lights on, children’s noses pressed against the back window, taking in the small town Christmas cheer.

This Palo Alto tradition began around a bridge game when Judge Edward Hardy, Mr. George English and their wives decided to do something to bring a little more yuletide merriment to the neighborhood.  Hardy later said he “wished to promote Christmas joy throughout the holidays…and to foster a similar spirit through the community and Palo Alto.”  They set up stakes along the length of the street adorned with 54 miniature Douglas firs decorated with Christmas lights.

Over six decades Christmas Tree Lane has survived as homeowners have come and gone, occasional tree rustlers have struck and lights were extinguished for war-time regulations in 1942 and during the energy crisis of 1973.  Some decorations have also become reappearing favorites.  The seven dwarfs have been seen sliding down the roof and peering in the windows at 1850 Fulton since the late 1940s and Santa Claus has been climbing the chimney at 1830 Fulton (Judge Hardy’s old home) since 1947.  

Today the tradition not only lives on, but has gotten better. Decorated houses have become increasingly intricate and now include some festive smurfs at 1716 Fulton, a lighted star 70 feet high in a redwood tree at #1801 and a “Night Before Christmas” display at # 1746.  City utility crews change all streetlights on the lane from white to red, elementary school carolers sometimes sing for passers-by, and has added a Silicon Valley touch to an old-fashioned tradition.

Palo Alto is obviously not the same small town it once was.  Kids can no longer safely bike unsupervised all over town, corporate chains now sit in nearly half the storefronts along University Avenue, and traffic snarls along many of the city’s major streets.  Like the rest of the country, changes have come to Palo Alto ---
bringing both good and bad.  But unlike some strip mall cities on the Peninsula, you can still find some of the old traditions in Palo Alto that makes this community special.  And if you ever doubt it, just take a look at a child’s face when they first turn that corner and gaze at the lights down Christmas Tree Lane. []

 Our Reader's Memories:

"My earliest memories of growing up in Palo Alto in the 1970's are of Christmas Tree Lane.  Every Christmas eve after church, we would drive down the enchanted street, and when we arrived at home, Santa had miraculously arrived.  To this day, I don't truly feel that it is the Christmas season until I take a ceremonial drive down Christmas Tree Lane.  It takes me back to my childhood to see the Smurfs, the nutcracker, the elves, the train, and the manger scene.  Although some homes do not display decorations quite as involved as I remember, it's a special holiday tradition.  And it's not only a tradition for locals!  One good friend who grew up in Marin took an annual trip down with her family to see Christmas Tree Lane!  I hope this tradition will last so that I can share it with my children some day."

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Santa climbing the chimney at the Hardy's house in 1949.

Santa still climbs the chimney today at 1830 Fulton.

The Smurfs have been a part of Christmas Tree Lane since the 1980s.