It’s that time of the year again – “the most wonderful time of year,” as sung by Andy Williams in 1963 and piped into countless elevators since. It is also the most hectic, most fattening, and typically the most stressful time of the year. While there’s been much chatter about rethinking the holidays to make them less chaotic, less commercial, more philanthropic, greener, and so on, the general sentiment of the season remains steeped in tradition, whatever that tradition might be. Perhaps you’re part of the Charlie Brown Christmas team, or maybe you lean toward Scrooge. Possibly your holidays include a snowman on your sweater, but more plausibly they include watching Elf or It’s a Wonderful Life for the 50th time. I love that the holidays belong as much to Elvis and Adam Sandler as they do to Bing Crosby and Frosty. It’s this eclecticism of beliefs, the folklore and, of course, the first signs of Norelco and the Pillsbury doughboy that are the core of traditions, both old and new.
My own early traditions consisted of an array of rituals, mostly comprised of food and dubious blue and white décor. Fried matzo balls in lieu of ornaments, Chinese food on Sunday nights, and the yearly yuk-yuk joke from Aunt Bea to my father: “Is that a Menorah in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
While those rituals are everlasting, my last 25 years of traditions are rooted on Union Street. For me, it’s the glow of tiny, twinkling white lights that line the buildings and the storefronts that sets the tone for the season. The inherent charm of our lit up Victorians and Edwardians feels nostalgic and heartening. It is the “real thing” here. Contrary to the contrived décor and heartlessness of the malls and big box environments, our neighborhood inspires immeasurable memories while providing a warm ambiance in which to shop locally.
Typically, the month-long celebration on Union Street begins with our Fantasy of Lights and Holiday Stroll event. This year it’s on Saturday, Dec. 1 from 3 to 7 p.m. Aside from our illustrious Snow Queen, who symbolically lights up the street from the radiant Cudworth Mansion at 2040 Union, we have our usual cast of costumed characters including toy soldiers, reindeers and snowmen. We’ve added more ponies to the very popular pony rides, and of course Santa and his team of elves are ever-present and will be available for photos from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Cudworth. Along with Santa, representatives of our San Francisco Fire Department will be standing by to collect donations of new toys for needy children. Collection barrels for The S.F. Firefighters Toy Program will be available throughout the holidays. A wonderful addition to the festivities is a magnificent horse-drawn carriage that undoubtedly will be a winner for the entire family. “By the way, did you see the tap dancing Christmas tree go by?” Oh yes, we’ve got that too, along with cupcake decorating sponsored by American Cupcake, food wagons serving hot drinks and treats, and red-nosed Rudolf and friends flying in the windows and up to the roof of Jest Jewels.
Later in the month, other Union Street customs spark some of my earliest memories on the street. Breakfast with Santa at La Cucina at 9 a.m. on Dec. 22 is one of them. Sure, it’s for the kids, but the warm bread pudding that Bebe serves up with just the right amount of Cow Hollow history and gossip is classic. Also on Dec. 22, holiday carolers return to Union Street. At 1 p.m., everyone is welcome to meet up at St. Mary’s Church to join the carolers as they sing their way up and down the street. Afterward, it’s back to the church for refreshments and more cheer.
Other traditions on Union Street include the creative holiday window displays of several of our merchants, namely Ambiance, Fredericksen’s, Marmalade, and Le Marcel Bakery for Dogs. But none are more captivating than Dennis Beckman’s windows at the Enchanted Crystal. Talk about tradition. For more years than I can remember, Dennis celebrates Thanksgiving Day in his store with many of his lifelong friends as he beautifully creates his magical holiday scenes.
It is because our neighborhood is so rich in tradition that I choose to stay local during December. I always prefer neighborhood and community environments. Plus, I prefer not to navigate downtown for those early-bird or Black Friday specials and the crush of bad attitudes.