Christmas Tree Lane in a vintage postcard, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Nothing says Christmas like the sight of beautiful outdoor twinkling lights lending a bit of romanticism and happiness to the holiday season. Homes and businesses spiffily decorate themselves. Cities light up parks and outdoor trees. The granddaddy celebration of them all is Altadena’s Christmas Tree Lane, the oldest and largest celebration of its kind in the world.
Merchants thought up ways of drumming up business during the Christmas season even in the 1920s. Pasadena merchant Fred Nash conceived of the idea of lighting outdoor fir trees in December to lure business to his store, drawing the support of his community organization, the Kiwanis. As the Los Angeles Times reported on Dec. 4, 1920, “Santa Rosa Ave., Altadena, will be a lane of illuminated Christmas trees during the holidays. Following out a plan proposed some weeks ago, the beautiful deodar trees on that street will be festooned with colored lights and trimmings, the Kiwanis Club having voted to share the expense with the city.” Only about a quarter of the trees were lit that year for its inaugural season.
The street had no name for years, but supposedly kids would say, “Let’s see the lights on Christmas Tree Street!” By the late 1920s, the entire length of the street was illuminated.
The year 1929 introduced a new innovation. The Times stated, “A mile of 100-foot Christmas trees illuminated with thousands of red, blue, and white electric bulbs is the novel Christmas present which this community and the city of Pasadena will present to Southern California at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow for the tenth consecutive year.” The article noted that the 250 giant fir trees would be lit each night until 10 p.m., even on New Year’s. It even claimed that 300,000 people in 1928 had viewed “what is reputed to be the most spectacular Christmas tree display in the world.” This year’s event featured the innovation “…a great star, symbolic of the ‘Star of Bethlehem,’ which has been raised in the center of the avenue at Woodbury Rd.”
The Pasadena Municipal Light and Power Company, along with the Pasadena Kiwanis Club, coordinated the event, and police officers and Boy Scouts directed traffic to the correct route, where two lanes of automobiles would head south down Santa Rosa Avenue with their headlights extinguished, so as not to compete with the lighted trees.
Other communities realized the financial value of special displays, as large flocks of sightseers would mean business for restaurants, gas stations, and other establishments. Soon, surrounding areas like Glendale, Riverside Drive by Griffith Park, and even the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum added their own Christmas Tree Lanes. At the height of the Depression, many dimmed their lights and parades to give food baskets to the hungry and needy, but Christmas Tree Lane soldiered on.
In 1932, different stories were propagated as to the history of the trees and their planting. F. F. Runyon in the March 18, 1932, Times claimed that in 1882, John Woodbury arrived in Altadena with seeds of a cedar tree from the Himalaya Mountains. His ranch manager T. L. Hoag tended the seeds for three years under glass before planting them in a row on what is now Santa Rosa Ave. The Dec. 24 Times published another story, that Thomas L. Hoag planted seedlings in 1885 along the private driveway of Captain Frederick J. Woodbury, with seeds supplied by the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., which were received from 150-foot deodar trees in India’s Himalaya Mountain’s fir trees. These trees were also called “God Trees.”
Over the years, the event dodged high winds, threats of fire, electrical storms, financial short runs, and highway construction. The 1934 Times described plans to build a six-lane truck highway right through the middle of the lane, which thankfully never happened. The city of Pasadena considered dropping the tree lighting in 1937 because of costs, and the Automobile Club of Southern California helped in 1938 to keep the tradition rolling. Pasadena went ahead with the lane in 1939, even though Los Angeles County had failed to provide its promised $1,000. Pasadena spent over $10,000 to illuminate the celebration, while Altadena provided nothing. Pasadena’s city manager joked in 1953 about finding sponsors as costs continued to rise, because growing trees required more lights. The lighting required massive preparation, as busy workers repaired and installed the lights from early October, and them took them down early in the new year.
Celebrities even took part in proceedings. Mary Pickford participated in 1940’s opening ceremonies, with the newspaper claiming that she supposedly originated the idea of outdoor Christmas tree lighting. That year, the Pasadena Boys Choir performed for the ceremony, the first broadcast on radio by KHJ. Rin Tin Tin and other members of his TV show attended the 1955 ribbon cutting.
Costs continued to rise on the charming celebration. In 1956, organizers formed the Christmas Tree Lane Association, a nonprofit group of volunteers from civic groups to organize the event without corporate funding or sponsors. Southern California Edison installed a permanent power grid for the street in 1964. In 1965, American Federation of Labor union workers volunteered to install lights, with 50 volunteers putting in 5,000 hours.
The 1977 Christmas Tree Lane almost became the last because of lack of support. Charles Haynes, president of the association, stated that, “People are too wrapped up in themselves these days to come out and help.” He even sent out letters to all Altadena and Pasadena churches, but no one responded. Residents stepped in. For the first time, the ceremonial opening was televised that year on KNBC.
The fame and stature of the event grew, with the lane named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, as well as becoming California State Landmark No. 990.
Santa Rosa Avenue remains a magic fairyland of lights each Christmas, with this year’s ceremonial lighting on Saturday, December 8. This charming event celebrates the simple pleasures of family, and friends, what the holiday season is all about.