.San Jose Christmas Tradition Span Generations

San Jose’s yearly tradition returns—this time with competition

In December, Santa is everywhere. More accurately, Santas are everywhere. 

At this time of year, Santas abound like colonies of monarchs, apples on a tree, chocolates in a box. Choose a metaphor of mass production you like.

This holiday season I’m on a mission to figure out who this mythological man is at his core. Here’s the real question: Where is the local Santa’s true home? 

This may sound like the start of a Christmas movie, but it’s actually a story of San Jose in all its complexity and charm. By now, the downtown holiday extravaganza Christmas in the Park blazes brighter than ever in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, with 550 Christmas trees foresting the two-acre park. Each year, different groups of San Joseans decorate the pines with palpable pride.

“It’s available to everyone, it’s free to everyone, and that’s really important to us,” says Stacey Holden, this year’s Christmas in the Park Board president. “We have generations of families that come, and they say, ‘I came as a child and now I’m bringing my children.’ You know, grandparents that are bringing their grandchildren. It’s a pretty special place.” 

As Silicon Valley has grown, so have the number of options, and newer entrants now compete with the locally grown tradition for holiday time mindshare and spend.

Claustrophenia  

Vanessa Chavira grew up just north of downtown. She describes Christmas in the Park as “walking into the backyard and there’s a winter wonderland.” 

Like others who enjoy the tradition, Chavira has gone her whole life. 

“It’s very reminiscent of San Jose,” she says. “You’re kind of hit with all the different trees, that’s the first thing I would say. You’ve got trees from all the different organizations and schools, and for me that really hits home, because I grew up going to Lincoln. There was an art program, and the tree was always beautifully decorated.” A dancer on the high school’s Folklórico team, Chavira helped decorate the team’s tree and danced at the event.

Christmas in the Park has unfolded in one form or another for a spectacular seven decades. Countless South Bay residents have deep personal connections to the event like Chavira’s. The tradition’s origins date back to 1949, when local mortician Don Lima borrowed $300 to build a sizable Nativity display. 

“It was something Don Lima had on the lawn of his mortuary,” Holden explains. “It kept growing and growing, and the traffic got so bad that finally he donated it to the city. It was really just one man’s vision of giving something to the community that’s just grown and grown.”  

By the early 1980s, enthusiastic additions had made the display so large and costly that the City moved it to its current home in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez. There, it has survived park renovations, a move to the fairgrounds, a pandemic, the valley’s increasing religious diversity and controversies about crèche displays on public lands.

Overall, an estimated 800,000 visitors make the pilgrimage to the annual event yearly—equivalent to nearly the entire population of San Jose. Organizers estimate an average economic influx of $20 million to nearby downtown businesses during the event each year. Today, more than 40 animated displays are interspersed through the hundreds of community trees that make up the Enchanted Forest. There, elves manufacture candy canes, trains chug along festively and reindeer prance.

Despite the scale of today’s Christmas in the Park, the core values of generosity and community that animated Lima’s homegrown project so many years ago remain at the heart of the event. In fact, one of the highlights is a train whose cars carry several pieces of Lima’s original display.

“My mother was on the board,” Holden says. “She was one of the first board members and I’m actually one of four board members who have a parent who was previously involved.” Don Lima’s grandson Vince is another of the four.

For Chavira, Christmas in the Park is as much a family bonding experience as it is an experience of hometown pride. 

“I was raised by my grandparents. They’re first-generation,” she explains. “My mom, she’s only about 16 years older than me—she did grow up going. I didn’t get to be with her too much because she was so young, but Christmas in the Park was a thing she did with my brother and I. It was something free that she could take her kids to on the weekend. I associate it a lot with her.”

Now, Chavira carries on the tradition with her four-year-old twin daughters, who enjoy walking through the park during the day when crowds are smaller.  

“For us, it all comes down to community,” Holden says. “Community and family. We offer something that brings community together. It’s a real unifying force in our community. It brings families together. I think it really does in that respect signify and represent the holiday spirit.” 

ENCHANTÉ 

On the west side of the Santa Clara Valley, another tradition has shone brightly since 1999: the Fantasy of Lights at Vasona Lake, presented by the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation. Those fortunate enough to procure tickets can either drive through or walk about a 1.5 mile long shimmering world of holiday-themed lighting displays. (As of this writing, the event runs through Dec. 30 but is sold out.)

Christmas in the Park has expanded as well, with a drive-through Blinky’s Illuminated Holiday at Lake Cunningham Park ($30 per car).

This year, however, there’s another light show in town—comprising a claimed 4 million twinkling lights. 

This glitzy addition to the holiday season comes in the form of Enchant at Paypal Park. Touted as “the World’s Largest Christmas Light Maze & Village,” this for-profit Christmas display, featuring three-dimensional light sculptures custom manufactured in China, has eight other locations across the country this year. 

Promoter Enchant Christmas Light Maze & Market Ltd. guards its intellectual property closely and in 2019 went to court in Nashville in an attempt to block a former collaborator from using its “copyright- and trade secret-protected designs.”

Enchant comes from northern climes—Vancouver, to be specific. The event got its start in the Canadian metropolis in 2016. Its first stop in the USA was at the Texas Rangers baseball stadium in Arlington, Texas. Not surprisingly, the notion of a new, commercially viable way to utilize stadium space caught on. After getting sidelined in 2020, Enchant returned to four American cities in 2021. This year marks its arrival in California, with outposts in San Jose and Sacramento, in partnership with sponsor Hallmark Channel.

This national-scale winter wonderland trades traditional red and green for a more contemporary, sequentially lit palette of navy, silver and gold. While Christmas in the Park features the adjacent Aloha Skate roller rink with a disco ball and Bee Gees soundtrack (a replacement for the recently departed Downtown Ice ice-skating rink, which was abandoned after only a year by Santa Monica-based Willy Bietak Productions after taking over from the San Jose Downtown Association in 2021), Enchant encourages visitors to “glide along through a dazzling forest full of Christmas lights” via its ice skating trail. Their signature drink is the Merry Mocktail served in whimsical cups shaped like lightbulbs. Instead of community-decorated trees, Enchant has an elaborate maze of lights where Santa’s reindeer hide. Those who find all nine can enter for a chance to win the Hallmark Channel trip sweepstakes.

So far I have avoided the elephant in the…sleigh. All these Santas cost and make money. Christmas is not just a time of love and joy but also the yearly zenith of American capitalism.

Thanks to its nonprofit status and public park venue, Christmas in the Park is free to the public. Enchant costs $39 for adults, and child tickets are $25. Ice skating is another $15-$20.

“When I heard that Paypal Park was doing that, I thought, ‘Oh that’s great, that’s another fun thing to do,’” Chavira says. “Then I saw how much they were charging for it and I thought, ‘Who is this for?’ It’s not for the people who grew up here and are working here and are trying to live here. That’s unfortunate because it looks really pretty and I would love to experience it.”

Felipe de la Rosa, a poet from Riverside, had family in town for his graduation from the MFA program at San Jose State and wanted to do something festive with them. Though they considered Enchant, he explains, “The tickets were pretty up there. We switched our plans because, price wise, Christmas at the Park was just more accessible.” 

He ended up having great fun with his brother, sister and their young kids. 

“We had a good time there. I don’t think we’d switch it.”

SEARCHING FOR SANTA

While Enchant conjures a magical space it does so at a very real price point, the kind many parents might struggle to pay. For Stacey Holden, Christmas in the Park’s accessibility is one of its most important traits. 

“A lot of people, you know, their children might never be able to go to Disneyland or even Happy Hollow,” she says. “And some of our guests can’t afford to get a Christmas tree—but they can come out and they can get the same experience as one of the major tech CEOs and their families.” 

Though it is a massive and costly undertaking, Christmas in the Park is run by a nonprofit organization that, since 2012, works year-round to secure sponsorships and grants to keep the vast majority of the event free. 

Support also comes from food and beverage sales, individual donations and ticket sales to a separate event, the Christmas in the Park Holiday Drive-Through at Lake Cunningham Park. 

This means, among other things, that any child can meet Santa Claus in San Jose. He might not have the most polished shoes, but he’s there for them. 

SAN JO-JO-JOSE

Here’s where I tell you something I feared might lose you in the beginning: Christmas is not really my thing. I don’t hate it, but I have never particularly liked it. Pondering Santa’s identity this year, I realized my Grinchy attitude may stem, in part, from the fact that I have moved often and rarely found a place that feels like “home.” 

In some ways, Enchant is made for a person like me, someone a bit rootless, a bit ambiguous in their Christmas traditions. Someone who might not know anything other than a park you could attend in eight other cities. In those places, visitors can meet a distributed version of Santa Claus. A theme park Santa, however, may lack nuance and warmth when you finally meet him in the flesh. 

At Plaza de Cesar Chavez, a local Santa is eating churros. He’s guarding a massive Christmas tree you can walk through, a tree-tunnel that must be inspired by the famous one in Sequoia National Park. It’s the same one at which your grandpa proposed to your grandma. The one you and your friends met under on Friday nights in December when you were teens. The one you watched your baby niece and nephew run through.  

This Santa is specific. He is a living embodiment of his hometown, San Jose. He morphs not according to the latest décor trends but to the needs and spirit of his community. 

In a half-hour interview, Holden has only been able to scratch the surface of all that Christmas in the Park does. 

“There’s so much more I could tell you,”  she says. “A few years ago we started sensory friendly days where we turn off the lights, we turn off the music, and we have time slots that you can schedule.” These days allow neurodiverse children to visit the park comfortably. 

“We’ve gotten letters from parents that have said this was the first time they were able to take their child to see Santa Claus,” Holden says. One memory in particular jumps out. 

“One year I was working during a sensory friendly day and Santa got down on the ground with this little girl. The mom said she liked balls, and Santa had some special things. This particular Santa had a granddaughter with autism, and he got on the floor and sat there and just rolled the ball to her, just sat and she rolled the ball back. He just was very calm and quiet and she had as much time as she needed and the mother was in tears. We have many of those stories. It’s a magical place to be.” 

“It’s not just Christmas,” says Vanessa Chavira. “You’re seeing really what San Jose is about coming together for the Christmas season.” 

At Christmas in the Park, I felt this community spirit. It was a real scene. And I spent only three dollars the whole night, buying a pair of glasses at the Information Booth that allow wearers to “see Santa in every point of light.” Walking through downtown wearing them, jolly hologram Santa faces appeared all around the city. It was my best view of San Jose yet.

Addie Mahmassanihttps://www.addiemahmassani.com/
Addie Mahmassani is a poet based in Santa Cruz. She holds a PhD in American Studies from Rutgers University-Newark and is currently an MFA student in creative writing at San Jose State University. There, she is a Teaching Associate as well as the lead poetry editor of Reed Magazine, California's oldest literary journal. She also surfs, sings and loves a part-sheepdog named Lou.

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