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

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.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa, Starting today I am going to behave." - Rhea

"Dear Santa, I'm going to stop peeing in my bed." - Rohan

"Dear Santa, I have been a good girl, or so says my mom and dad. I will be 5 next week. But you're Santa, so you already know that." - Logan

Every year, thousands of letters like these from all over Northern California wind up at the downtown Oakland Post Office.
And every year, Consumer Affairs Director Elma Ramirez and her trusty elves - Toni Harmon, Tim Wong, Rita Christobal, Brenda Presley, Janet Ezell, David Thompson and Carmen Boeche - separate them into two piles, one labeled "Needy" and the other labeled "Greedy," and ask the public to help answer them. (See below to find out how you can participate.)
Some are heartwarming. Some are heartbreaking. And some are just plain hilarious. Here's what our kids are thinking:

"Dear Santa, I really don't want nothing for Christmas. I would just like my younger siblings to have something to open. My mother tries hard, but she needs help. She doesn't have a job. I would like her to receive something for Christmas because she really tries to take care of all her kids. I hope this reaches Santa. If not, at least I tried." - Brianna

"Dear Santa, Do you have an e-mail address? If you do, please give it to me so we can send messages quicker. And do you have a phone number? If you do, give it to me so I can call you when you are not busy. Love, Bella."

"Dear Santa, I am a good girl in school. I'm going to get 100 persent on my spelling test. Love, Rosalinda."

"Dear Santa, I'm sorry I was bad this year. It's because I'm getting older, but I'll always believe in you. All I want for Christmas is to spend some time with my dad. It makes me sad when I see everyone with their dads and makes me want to cry. I like to write to you because you understand me. Sincerely, Alexis. P.S. Please write back."

"Dear Santa, Could I please get a Big Fat Piggie Bank? Make her pink with white polka dots and as fat as you can. I saw one at Marshall's, but Grandma said they may have a fatter one at Walgreen's. Thank you, Santa. Love, Kayla."

"Dear Santa, I know that at the moment you are stressed because Christmas is coming, but I hope you can read my letter. I have been a good boy all year. At the bottom is a signature that says that my parent/guardian agrees that I have been a good boy. Now that I have gone over the necessaries, her is my wish list. I list them in order of importance." (No signature)

"Hi Santa. I'm writing for my little brother because he is too small to write. He loves soccer. He plays with me every day and he is very good at it. He loves soccer balls and he likes soccer shoes, size 13. He also likes shorts. His size is 7 and his shirt size is large in little boys'. If U can't it's OK. I no you tried. Sincerely, Jesus."

"Dear Santa, I know I was kind of mean to Willow, but I tried my best this year. But I just can't ignore her, even though I know I should. What I want is expensive and very, very cool. I bet it's going to be a big fat NO! I want a mini motorcycle. You know, the kind that Jacqueline has. Merry Chrismas, Summer."

"Dear Santa Claus, My name is Iise. I have a little sister, Lizbeth. I'm 13 years old and she is 11 years old. We are writing this letter because we wish you can bring us something this Christmas. We need clothes and shoes. Thank you for reading our letter. We will be waiting for you. Sincerely, Iise and Lizbeth."

"Dear Santa, I hope you have a safe drive around the world. I've been good this year. I'm still working on being really nice to Eliza. I'm almost there." (No signature)

"Dear Santa, What I want to ask for is if you can give a little donation for our people in El Salvador. Please. These people are sleeping on streets. Kids are alone with no parents. Families are totally alone. Please, if you can send a little donation. Thank you, Rosibel."

"Dear Santa, My little sister is 2 years old. She wants a playhouse that has a kitchen and a fake phone. Can you bring it before 3 p.m. because my parents go to work then? Love, Monserat."

"Dear Santa, I just wanted to tell you we won't be in Monterey for Christmas. We will be at Nanni's house in Genesee, New York. Please leave our presents in Monterey. We only want our stockings filled in Genesee. From Ava."

"Dear Santa, I wish for my two little brothers to have the toys they want and for my mom and us to have food. I hope it's not too much to ask. My mom only works half time. Thank you, Selena."

"Dear Santa, I'm 9 now, and I have a really strict teacher and I try really hard so I won't have to stay on the bench for a week. And when we all go in the classroom at math time, he yells because someone was behaving bad, and I get scared. Santa, if you have time, can you send me a letter back about what to do? Your best friend, Jasmin."

"Dear Santa, I am sorry, but my Christmas list has not been made. I'm not exactly sure how I've been. Overall, I think my record is pretty clean, even though I might have been bad sometimes. Don't worry, I really do believe in you. Lots of love and Christmas spirit, Noah."

"Dear Santa, How are you doing today? I have been a good little boy throughout the year. I would like it if you would send me a gift because my parents don't have a job so they can't afford to buy me one. Santa, I would love it if you can send me some clothes. My size is 2. Thank you Santa! Love, Pedro."

"Dear Santa, It's that time of year again. You know, I've been wanting to ask you some questions. First, do you know God? Second, how do you make your reindeer fly? Third, why do you live in the North Pole? Fourthly, who are your favorite elf and reindeer? Please write back. Love, Tiana."

"Dear Santa Claus, Boy, it's rainy here right now! How are you? Are Mrs. Claus and the reindeer doing well? My family and I are very well, and my puppy's first birthday is coming up soon. If I could have one wish this year, I would like you, Santa, to have a joyous holiday. Love, Sophia."

"Dear Santa, I forgot to tell you I love you. Love, Conner."

Want to be Santa's helper? Thousands of children's letters to the big guy to are waiting for you at the downtown Oakland Post Office.
All you have to do is call the Santa Hotline at 510-622-7420 or stop by the Post Office's Consumer Affairs Division at 201 13th Street, Room 228, in downtown Oakland, and they'll give you as many letters to answer as you want.
You don't necessarily have to enclose a present. "The children appreciate it so much just knowing that someone cares," says Consumer Affairs Director Elma Ramirez. "But if you also want to send a present, that's OK, too."
The need is greater than ever this year because of the recession.
"I've never seen anything like it," says Ramirez. "Lots of children are asking Santa to find a job for their mother or father."
Your reward will be the knowledge that you've made a child's Christmas a little happier. And every once in a while, there's an added plus. Last year, Tracey Haught of Walnut Creek sent a present to a little girl named Angelica, and a few days later she got a call from the shipper saying that Angelica had written Santa a thank-you letter.
That letter is now framed and hanging on Haught's wall. As it happens, Haught's birthday is Christmas Eve. "vest birthday present I ever got," she says.
Finally, if you’d like your own child to receive a letter from Santa, that can also be arranged. Just write a letter to your child, put it in an envelope addressed to your child, and put a stamp on it.
Then stick the envelope inside another one addressed to North Pole Holiday Postmark, Postmaster, 4141 Postmark Dr., Anchorage, AK 99530-9998. (Yes, Santa has his own zip code.)
A special unit at the Anchorage Post Office will stamp your child's letter with a cancellation reading "North Pole" and mail it back.
Merry Christmas!