Streetwise: Faded Holiday Traditions

by Frank Dunnigan

As everyone knows, times and traditions are constantly changing. People, places, and things that are popular today, might easily fade from the scene to be replaced with something new. Thanks to the vast photo archives of OpenSFHistory and Western Neighborhoods Project, though, it is easy and enjoyable to take a few glances back to some memorable holiday images from San Francisco’s past.
 

Looking north on West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel, December 26, 1956.Looking north on West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel, December 26, 1956. (wnp25.1549; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Local merchants from many neighborhoods bolstered holiday spirit with street decorations. From the Richmond and Sunset districts to the shopping areas of the Ingleside, Mission, Excelsior, Marina, and more, good wishes and holiday décor were highly visible around town. This scene shows West Portal Avenue in December of 1956 at a time when West Portal School, perched high above the Twin Peaks Tunnel, still had both of its main buildings.
 

West Portal of Twin Peaks Tunnel, 1958.West Portal of Twin Peaks Tunnel, 1958. (wnp32.2774; Emiliano Echeverria Collection / Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)
 

For a few consecutive years in the late 1950s, West Portal Avenue merchants decorated the façade of the Twin Peaks Tunnel to look like a fireplace, complete with candles and gift-filled stockings.
 

Christmas tree outside McLaren Lodge, December 1932.Christmas tree outside McLaren Lodge, December 1932. (wnp27.5562; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

The tree growing in front of McLaren Lodge at Fell & Stanyan Streets has been lighted annually since 1932. For many years, it was a destination (along with the Shriner’s Hospital tree on 19th Avenue and the Living Nativity scene in Golden Gate Park’s Lindley Meadow) for families with children to make a nighttime drive-by viewing, with wide-eyed kids often dressed in their jammies and tucked snugly into the backseat. Read Woody LaBounty’s 2017 article about how this tradition of lighting living trees evolved from the San Francisco Examiner’s practice of cutting down an enormous tree and then erecting/lighting it on Christmas Tree Road atop Twin Peaks in the 1920s
 

Civic Center Plaza Christmas tree, December 26, 1933.Civic Center Plaza Christmas tree, December 26, 1933. (wnp26.146; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

For many years, Civic Center Plaza in front of San Francisco’s City Hall was home to a very large Christmas tree display. The plaza has undergone numerous remodels over the years and the patterned brick pavement is long gone.
 

View west along Chestnut Street at Scott with Christmas decorations, 1950.View west along Chestnut Street at Scott with Christmas decorations, 1950. (wnp28.1687; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Chestnut and Scott Streets in the Marina, still served by the F-line streetcars, were bedecked with silver tinsel, stars, and bells in 1950. Streetcar service on Chestnut Street ended on January 19, 1951 and MUNI’s 30-Stockton bus line took over.
 

Christmas decorations along Geary Boulevard at 5th Avenue, December 1963.Christmas decorations along Geary Boulevard at 5th Avenue, December 1963. (wnp25.4817; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Fifth Avenue & Geary Boulevard, looking east, shows a variety of sparkling stars and trees along the planted median in December of 1963.
 

Muni Presidio carhouse at Geary and Masonic decorated for holidays, January 1952.VMuni Presidio carhouse at Geary and Masonic decorated for holidays, January 1952. (wnp32.2303; Emiliano Echeverria Collection / Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)
 

MUNI’s car house at Geary & Masonic displays a row of green wreaths decorated with red in 1952. The World War I-era building, designed to serve streetcars, has long been a bus maintenance facility.
 

Christmas decorations at Shell gas station at southeast corner of Baker and Fell Streets, December 1927.Christmas decorations at Shell gas station at southeast corner of Baker and Fell Streets, December 1927. (wnp4.1895; Christopher Helin, photographer / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Many gas stations of the past were prime locations for oversized holiday decorations, such as this 1927 display at the Shell station located at Baker & Fell Streets (current site of the local DMV office).
 

Associated Gas station at Junipero Serra Boulevard and Ocean Avenue with Christmas decorations, circa 1949. (Courtesy of Bud Sandkulla)
 

This multi-level Flying A gas station, located at the southeast corner of Ocean Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard in the shadow of a PG&E substation, was decked out in a veritable winter wonderland of holiday décor circa 1949. A bank building replaced the station circa 1980.
 

Christmas decorations lining Mission Street at 18th Avenue, circa 1956.Christmas decorations lining Mission Street at 18th Avenue, circa 1956. (wnp14.1596; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Mission Street merchants combined tinsel with stars, snowflakes, and red Mission bells in the neighborhood’s holiday display from 1956.
 

Engine Company 43 firehouse at 724 Brazil Street decorated for holidays, December 1949.Engine Company 43 firehouse at 724 Brazil Street decorated for holidays, December 1949. (wnp27.7381.jpg; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

For several years after World War II, San Francisco firehouses competed among themselves in outdoor holiday lighting contests. This was the display installed by Engine Company 43 at 724 Brazil Avenue (between Athens and Vienna) in 1949. The Mission Revival building, constructed in 1911 when SFFD was still heavily reliant on horses, was eventually decommissioned and converted into two residential units. The SFFD revived this holiday firehouse decorating tradition last year and this year.
 

Engine Company 38 firehouse at northwest corner of San Jose and Ocean Avenues, December 1949.Engine Company 38 firehouse at northwest corner of San Jose and Ocean Avenues, December 1949. (wnp27.7379; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Engine Company 38 at the NW corner of Ocean and San Jose Avenues in 1949. The old wooden building was demolished in the late 1950s when it was replaced with a new structure farther west on Ocean Avenue. This corner of Ocean and San Jose Avenues is now a skateboard park.