Thursday, December 10, 2009
The Gift of the Magus
Next Friday, volunteers from Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230 will haul more than 150 folk art sculptures up Moeser Avenue to the corner of Moeser and Seaview.
So will begin one of El Cerrito's most beloved traditions - the annual Shadi Sculpture Holiday Display. It will remain there until Dec. 27.
The tradition started in December 1949, when an immigrant from India named Sundar Shadi surprised his neighbors with a Christmas present.
They awoke one morning to find his front yard filled with papier-mâché shepherds, wise men, angels, camels goats, sheep, doves, spires stars, minarets and domes - all lovingly handmade from papier-mâché and chicken wire and painted by hand.
Each year, the display kept growing until it depicted the whole town of Bethlehem.
But there were no statues of Jesus, Mary or Joseph. Mr. Shadi, as everyone called him, was a Sikh, and he came to this country to escape religious persecution from both Hindus and Muslims. So he purposely kept the display non-sectarian.
The citizens 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. The tour busses used to line up, bringing visitors from as far away as Sacramento and San Jose - more than 70,000 each holiday season.
Mr. Shadi kept it up until 1997, when failing eyesight forced him to quit. He died in 2002 at the age of 101.
Then something happened that showed why El Cerrito is such a special place. The people themselves simply refused to let his legacy die.
Under Bartke's leadership, the El Cerrito Soroptomist club took over the sculptures - with the blessing of Mr. Shadi's family - and restored them to their former glory. In 2003 the Shadi sculptures made a triumphant return, and they've returned every holiday season since.
It's a true community effort, including individuals like Gordon White, who prepares the ground for the display; Dick Ritz and Rich Bartke, who do the setup; John Wilson, who operates the music; and Jackson Lusk, who runs the security cameras; as well as El Cerrito firefighters (working on their own time), local businesses, the city government and PG&E, which provides the land.
There are many different ways in which you can participate, too.
Money always helps. All the labor is voluntary, but there's still electricity, insurance, repairing the sculptures and storage during the rest of the year to pay for.
You can "adopt" one of the sculptures - a wise man (including his camel) for $500, a large shepherd for $350, a hookah pipe for $50, or assorted sheep for $25.
Send a tax-deductible check to the El Cerrito Community Foundation, P.O. Box 324, El Cerrito CA 94530.
Even more importantly, you can volunteer your effort. Bartke and her cadre of volunteers, who are from the generation that knew Mr. Shadi personally, aren't getting any younger, and they can't do this forever.
It's time for the next generation, who didn't know him but thrilled to the holiday display when they were little kids, to step up and eventually take over. Call Bartke at 510-235-1315.
The display will be lighted with music every day from 5 to 10 p.m. from Dec. 18 through Dec. 27.