South Bay Historical Society

Christmas Traditions in the South Bay

Christmas in National City Dec. 12, 2013, with the historic Elizur Steele and Frank Kimball houses behind the band on the left, and Brick Row on the right.

One of the earliest South Bay Christmas traditions began in National City after Frank Kimball built his home on West Tenth Street near National Avenue. He wrote the following in his diary Dec. 24, 1875: "In p.m. helped fix for Christmas Eve, cut a pine tree in the yard to hang presents on. About 30 persons to our party. I had slippers from "Sister" and paperweight and thermometer from Joe, pin from Mrs. Field and something from Mary. Had a nice time." It was common in these early years to decorate with handmade items, and hang presents on the tree along with cookies and candies. Clinton Kimball was famous for making popcorn balls that he gave to the neighborhood children. Christmas dinner was a grand affair. Charles Copeland, grandson of Frederic Copeland and Mary Kimball Copeland told how his mother would make the mince meat filling. "She would cook it on the back of Ihe stove, slowly cooking it for days, citron, apples, raisins, the aroma filled the house and you can be sure I would sample a taste." The food was homegrown from the farm or from the family garden, as were flowers. Marilyn Carnes of National City remembered the tradition of her grandmother, Esther Cumberland: "Grandmother would cut a native toyon, or better known as the 'California holly,' with its bright red berries acting as natural decoration for their tree." (El Toyon Park in National City and Toyon Lane in Chula Vista are named for this holly).

The German settlers on Otay Mesa gathered for a "Christmas Eve on the Otay Mesa" described by a letter sent to The San Diego Union Jan. 6, 1886: On Christmas Eve "we attended a Christmas festival held at Mr. H. Chester's house, and to which each guest contributed, not only his basket of delicious eatables, but also a hearty endeavor to please and entertain. The regulation Santa Claus made glad the youngsters' hearts by distributing among them the gifts which weighted down the boughs of an immense evergreen tree. There were fifteen or twenty of the bright-eyed, happy children, and they should not be allowed to remain deprived of the benefits of a public school on the Mesa. A programme was then carried out, which for excellence, astonished me."

Chula Vista built its first two-room schoolhouse in 1889, where the Norman Park Center is located today, and Irene Phillips wrote of the first school Christmas program that would become a regular tradition at this school and at the F Street School that replaced it, from 1916 to 1961 on the site of today's Public Library. On Christmas Eve 1889, "Miss Lillian R. Jones who teaches grades one through seven arranged a fifteen-number program in which all twenty-one children participated."

The small town of Chula Vista in the 1920s began a annual Community Christmas Tree celebration around a platform built at the railroad depot. By 1933 it was attended by 800 people, "the largest yet" according the the Chula Vista Star newspaper. Church choirs sang and the people sang Christmas carols. At a flashlight signal from Harry Olmstead to Fire Chief Wallace Armer, Santa Claus arrived in Chief Kelly's police car, and distributed 400 boxes to kids. Dorothy June Kelly remembered the kids gathered at Peters Feed Store and played and sang around a big hay wagon, and then were given a box of hard candy and unshelled mixed nuts by the city council.

The home of the Bernard Herbert Finis Smith at the corner of Thrid and D Street featured a Cyprus tree that was decorated every Christmas starting in 1935, and as the tree grew over the years, the strings of colored lights could be seen in downtown Chula Vista a half mile away. Next door to the Smith house, the Fredericka Manor was decorated with a life-sized Santa Claus and a huge red sleigh, complete with plaster reindeers. During the 1930s, the American Legion post sold Christmas trees for people to take home at 25 cents per tree.

1939 - The annual Community Christmas party was moved to the new Memorial bowl and the city decorated Third Avenue downtown with lights to create "Santa Claus Lane" leading to the big tree in Memorial Park. During the war, Santa arrived in a jeep to distribute candy to kids at Community Christmas tree.

Third Avenue in Chula Vista was decorated for Christmas in 1954.

1952 - The new Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) began an annual Christmas Carol Festival by 300 carolers from 28 groups attended by more than 1000 people. Pete Manos, a member of the San Diego Opera, directed the entire group and sang with Eileen Pettit, also a member of the opera.

1954 - The Jaycees began an annual Christmas home lighting contest giving prizes to those home judged to be best decorated. The Jaycees claimed Chula Vista had more homes decorated for Christmas than any other town in Southern California.

1956 - The residents of the 200 block of Guava Avenue decorated their homes and street and created "Candy Cane Lane" that became famous throughout San Diego until finally coming to an end in 1997.

1957 - Santa arrived by helicopter at the new South Bay Plaza shopping center in National City.

1958 - The residents of Mankato and Whitney streets created "Christmas Circle" when they decorated their streets. Mr. Wier who worked for SDGE got the men together and installed wiring that he bought at cost from SDGE. The pepper trees where wrapped in foil like candy canes. The wiring connected all the trees and a spotlight lit up each tree. The men made stars 2 feet wide and put on top of every house.

1961 - Chet Norman, the city's first park superintendent, retired in 1961 and moved to Julian, and for several years gave to the city of Chula Vista a huge city Christmas tree, cutting down and hauling the tree from his mountain home.

1964 - Santa arrived at the Chula Vista Shopping Center on an elephant, riding down Broadway from E Street with police escort.

1965 - Tom Huntington, owner of the Vogue theater that he built in 1945, organized the first Starlight Yule Parade so local families could see their children in their own hometown parade. It was held at 7 pm at the end of November, the only Christmas parade in San Diego county to be held at night. The parade featured a Grand Marshall and high school bands from the South Bay. In 1967 for the 3rd annual parade, there were 17 Grand Marshalls, all members of the Chula Vista World Champion Pony League Team, fresh from their victory over Tulsa in the August Pony League World Series. This parade also featured the Hilltop High School band that had recently won a competition to represent San Diego county in Rose Bowl Parade. The last Starlght Parade in 2011 drew 60,000 people to downtown Chula Vista. It was replaced by an annual "Holiday in the Village" event sponsored by the Third Avenue Village Association.

1972 - Dr. William Nelson, an optometrist, started raising over 2,000 trees in Bonita and opened "Nelson's Pine Patch." His efforts grew into the Pacific Tree Farms nursery until closing in 2006.

Nelso's Pine Patch advertised in The San Diego Union, Dec. 23, 1973

1978 - Lamb's Players in National City began its annual Festival of Christmas theatre production.

1992 - The Bonita Museum and Cultural Center began an annual Magi exhibit.

2002 - "Christmas Comes to Imperial Beach" began as an annual community event at the Imperial Beach Pier.

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