Saturday, December 6, 2008
The Best Christmas Present Of All
(Click on image to see larger version)
I'm fond of a lot of cities in the Bay Area, but there's a special place in my heart for El Cerrito.
It's always been a Cinderella-like stepsister to its neighbors, especially Berkeley. Even the name is a hand-me-down: It used to belong to the town next door until that town decided to change its name to Albany.
And El Cerrito is stuck with San Pablo Avenue, which is basically a freeway with streetlights, as its main drag. Not exactly like strolling down Main Street at Disneyland.
Nevertheless, the people of El Cerrito have somehow managed to fashion it into a local version of a Midwestern small town. Everybody knows each other, and they are immensely proud of their city and its traditions.
And one of the happiest traditions is the annual Shadi sculptures display.
It started in December 1949, when an immigrant from India named Sundar Shadi decided to surprise his neighbors with a Christmas present.
They woke up one morning to find an elaborate Christmas display on his sprawling hillside yard - shepherds, wise men, angels, camels, goats, sheep, doves, spires, stars, minarets and domes - all lovingly handmade from papier-mache and chicken wire.
The display grew year after year until it depicted the whole town of Bethlehem, with hundreds of hand-painted figures in a range of sizes, creating the illusion of shepherds and their sheep in the foreground and the town in the distance.
It quickly became a beloved community institution, and not just in El Cerrito, either. Tourists by the charter busloads came from as far away as Sacramento and San Jose – more than 70,000 each year, by conservative estimate.
"To many people around here, Mr. Shadi WAS Christmas," says former Mayor Jane Bartke.
He was a real life Santa Claus who gave his neighbors something more precious than toys – namely, the true spirit of the season. The incredible work he went through every year was his gift of love to them.
In 1997 failing eyesight forced him to quit. He died in 2001 at the age of 101.
But then a wonderful thing happened. The people of El Cerrito refused to let his legacy die.
Under Bartke's leadership, the El Cerrito Soroptomist club took over the sculptures and restored them to their original glory. In 2002 the Shadi sculptures made a triumphant return, this time on a lot owned by PG&E at the corner of Moeser and Seaview. And they have appeared there every holiday season since then.
This weekend, volunteers from Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230 will haul the sculptures up the hill and set them up. And there they will remain until Dec. 27.
If you've never seen them, trust me: My description doesn't even begin to do them justice. The best time to view them is after dark, when all the lights are on.
All the labor is voluntary, but money is still needed for electricity, insurance, repairing the sculptures, storing them during the rest of the year and renting the lot from PG&E. (They can't use city property because of possible church/state conflicts.)
To help out financially, send a tax-deductible check to the El Cerrito Community Foundation, P.O. Box 324, El Cerrito, CA 94530.
And if you'd like to participate personally, Bartke and her crew of volunteers are looking for younger people to carry this tradition into the future.
"It's time for the next generation to start taking over," she says.
If this sounds like fun to you, give her a call at 510-235-1315.
In keeping with Mr. Shadi's wishes, the display is non-sectarian. Mr. Shadi was a Sikh, and he left India to escape religious persecution from both Hindus and Muslims.
So in his spirit, let me wish you a merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, joyous Eid ul-Fitr, happy Kwanzaa, swingin' Solstice, far-out Festivus and a cool Yule.