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.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa,
"Last year I asked for a pony. I did not get a pony. Do you know what I got? Do you? Guess! Guess!
"When I say pony, I mean REAL! Do you know the meaning of this word?
"Well, just letting you know that I am a very upset individual. I hope you do better this year!
"With hope and dreams, Emily."

"Dear Santa, Thank you for all the stuff you gave me last year! How did you find the American Girl Chrisa swimsuit? I love it! You rock! Love, Camille."

"My name is Octavio and I am 10 years old. My brother Emilio is 9 years old and Danny is 3. My mom is very sick, so we won't be able to celebrate Christmas this year. My brother Emilio and I are disabled. Danny is OK. I like Transformer toys, and Emilio and Danny like remote control cars. Please Santa come to visit us. And make my mommy well."

Once again, thousands of letters like these are pouring into the downtown Oakland Post Office from children all over Northern California. Some are heartwarming, some are heartrending, and some are simply hilarious.
And once again, the post office is inviting the public to become Santa's helpers for a day and answer some of these missives.
"You don't necessarily have to send a present," says Consumer Affairs Director Elma Ramirez, who founded the Santa's Mailbag project 24 years ago. "Sometimes they're happy just hearing from someone who cares."
On the other hand, if you are moved to send a present, nobody's going to stop you.
To become a Santa's helper, call the Santa hotline at 510-622-7420 and leave your number. They'll call you back and sign you up.
In the meantime, here are this year's batch of letters. As always, the kids never fail to surprise:

"Dear Santa, What do you do after Christmas? My mom thinks you go to Hawaii. How is Mrs. Claus? I was surprised when I saw the golf clubs. I wanted them, but I didn't tell anyone. How do you know that stuff? Love, Caroline. P.S. Tell Comet I said hi. He's my favorite."

"Dear Santa, How are you? How is Mrs. Claus? Did you have a good summer? I did, and now I'm in the 6th grade. I just got my first report card, and you know what I did? My GPA was 3.75, and my report card showed my rad skills. I got 6 As and 2 Bs, so I did awesome! Your friend, Silas. P.S. I will never stop believing in you."

"Dear Santa, I was good because I didn't use bad words. Love, Ritwick."

"Dear Mr. Santa Claus, I have been nice sometimes. I was nice after school today, and I was nice last Thursday. Love, Jennifer."

"Dear Santa, I think I've been a good girl. But I can be rude or mean, so please forgive me. For Christmas I want my family to be happy. Sincerely, Madi-Moo (Madison)."

"Dear Santa, My grandma says I've been good, but my auntie says I've been bad. You be the judge. Signed, Richard."

"Dear Santa, I hope all is well at the North Pole. How are the reindeer doing? I'd really like a horse trailer with a red truck and tons of horses for Christmas. I'd also like to say happy birthday to Jesus. Love, Luke."

"Dear Santa, I have some good news and bad news. I'm sure you already know, but it would be nice to tell you. My mom and brother and I have to move, and we have no idea where we are going. All the money Mom made waitressing she spent on socks and toothbrushes and stuff for us. She is really doing bad this year, so I am asking you for stuff for her. Anything will do. I know she will be so happy. Thank you, Santa. I know you know everything because you are Santa. I know God will help us as well. Love, Jaida."

"Dear Santa, I really like your Macy's store. It's big and full of good stuff. Thanks, Anna."

"Dear Santa, I need supplies for school because I am constantly running out of pencils and paper because my dog, Choco, keeps chewing them. Sincerely, Jose."

"Dear Santa, My name is Choco, and I am a Chihuahua. I really need a chew toy that squeaks because all the toys I have are ripped because I keep chewing them. My owner, Jose, gives me his socks to chew but I really don't like them. Sincerely, Choco."

"Dear Santa Claus, My name is Ashley and my twin brother's name is Chris. We are both 9 years old. My mom is disabled due to spine surgery in 2002, and my dad is 80% disabled due to an injury at work in 2009. We are barely making it with only my dad's disability check two times a month. One check is always for the rent and the other is for food and bills. So maybe you can bring me and my brother some gifts this year. I would like some books to read, and my brother would like a Nintendo game. Thank you very much, Ashley."

"Dear Santa, I know this is a little silly, but may I have a gift card from Abercrombie or Hollister? I've been trying hard to be an extra good girl, but sometimes I am naughty, I have to admit. But I will be fantastic next year! Love, Juliette. P.S. Thanks for the card last year."

"Dear Santa, Hello, my name is Neylan. I wish there were peace in the world. I don't like violence."

"Dear Santa, What kind of cookies do you like? I like chocolate chip, don't you? Hey, why don't you send me back a letter? Then you can put questions and answers on it! Isn't that a great idea? See? See? See what I mean? Man, please? Oh, never mind. My wish list is on the back. Sincerely, Nicole."

"Dear Santa, This year I would like a last generation iPod Nano and a $50 gift certificate to iTunes. If you can't get it I'll understand; but could you, like, try hard? Sincerely, Connor."

"Dear Santa Claus, All I want for Christmas is a Meyer lemon and a plasma screen TV. Love, Brynli."

"Dear Santa, Can you please bring me some warm clothes? You know how much it has been raining and how cold it gets here. Santa, I will be waiting for you and your helpers. Please don't forget about me. Sincerely, Zaira."

"Dear Santa, The North Pole is very cold. If you need help with any toys, come get me. Love, Olivia."

"Dear Santa, My family is a family of six. This year has been a rough year, and we might lose our house. So I don't want something for me this Christmas, I want something, even if it's a small thing, for my whole family. Merry Christmas, Priscilla."

"Dear Santa, I am in the 2nd grade. I do my homework, I help my mom, I'm nice to my family. Thank you for reading my letter. Love, Carlos."

"Dear Santa, I am eleven years old. Some people I meet say you aren't real, but I still believe in you. Please write back Santa. Sincerely, Alysia."

"Dear Santa Claws, I would like my two front teeth and other gifts. Sincerely, Lydia."

"Dear Santa, Thank you for being there watching over us all year. My sister and I are trying to get along as best as possible. I will try to be a better boy until you come see us on Christmas, I will leave you some cookies and milk. Love you, John."

"Hello Santa. I have a question for you. Do you celebrate any other holiday besides Christmas? Please write back. From Christopher."

"Dear Santa Claus, I've done good things. I helped my friends from mean kids. I also got As and Bs. You are the greatest man in the worrrrrrrrrrrld! Love, Geronimo."

"Dear Santa, For Christmas I would like an i-Carly video set, a big ring for my mom, and some money for the Humane Society." (Unsigned.)

"Dear Santa, what would YOU like for a present? Love, Maggie."

"Dear Santa, This year I don't really want anything. I feel so lucky that I have a roof over my head, food and water, and so many great family and friends to talk to.
"I lied - there is one thing I would love. It would be so nice if you could give something extra to families less fortunate than others. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Hattie."