A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Spirit of Christmas Past

Ten years ago, the people of El Cerrito confronted a crisis. Sundar Shadi, the man who created the city's most beloved Holiday tradition, was forced by age and failing eyesight to call it quits.
The tradition started in 1949, when Mr. Shadi's neighbors awoke one morning to find a single star in his front yard. It was his way of wishing them a merry Christmas, even though he wasn't a Christian himself.
Every year after that he kept adding shepherds, wise men, angels, camels goats, sheep, doves, spires stars, minarets and domes - all lovingly handmade by Mr. Shadi from papier-mâché and chicken wire and painted by hand.
The display kept growing until it finally numbered more than 150 figures, depicting the town of Bethlehem.
But there were no statues of Jesus, Mary or Joseph. Mr. Shadi was a Sikh, and he came to this country from India to escape religious persecution from both Hindus and Muslims. So he purposely kept the display non-denominational.
The people of El Cerrito quickly took Mr. Shadi and his creation to their hearts.
"To many people around here, Mr. Shadi WAS Christmas," says former Mayor Jane Bartke.
And his fame spread far beyond the city limits. Tour busses used to line up, bringing visitors from as far away as Sacramento and San Jose - more than 70,000 every Christamas time.
Mr. Shadi died in 2002 at age 101. But despite the sadness, something wonderful happened that showed why El Cerrito is such a special place.
From its beginning, El Cerrito has struggled uphill. I mean, how you like to have a busy thoroughfare like San Pablo Avenue as your main street, effectively slicing your town in half?
But despite this, I know no other city that can match El Cerrito's down-home, small-town flavor. It may be in the shadow of bigger cities like Berkeley and Oakland, but its people love it dearly.
So it was no surprise that when Mr. Shadi died, they refused to let his legacy die with him
Under Bartke's leadership, the El Cerrito Soroptomist Club took over the sculptures - with the blessing of the Shadi family - and restored them to their former glory.
In 2003 the Shadi sculptures made a triumphant return, and they've been brightening our Holidays ever since. This year they'll be on display at the corner of Moeser and Seaview every day until 10 p.m. from Dec. 18 to 27.
It's been a true community effort, with individual volunteers joining forces with local businesses; PG&E, which provides the land; and Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230, who, working on their own time, haul the sculptures up the hill every year and return them to storage when Christmas is over.
But now the Shadi sculptures face a new crisis.
"We're getting too old to do this much longer," says Bartke, who is 72. "We need to start training the next generation to take over from us. If we don't get someone to step up, this tradition is going to die."
It's up to you, El Cerritans. The Shadi sculptures have been an important part of our Christmases since we were little kids. Are we going to deny our own children and grandchildren the same experience?
E-mail shadidisplay@aol.com if you want to volunteer.
Merry Christmas.

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