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 1, 2011

Christmas Comes To El Cerrito

Once upon a time there was a man named Sundar Shadi who came to this country from India in 1921 and settled in El Cerrito.
He got a master's degree in horticulture from Cal, but because of prejudice against immigrants the only job he could get was pumping gas.
Instead of complaining he worked hard, saved his money, made some smart investments, and retired a moderately wealthy man at age 50 in 1949.
That's when he began his true calling. That Christmas, his neighbors awoke to find a detailed recreation of the entire town of Bethlehem in his front yard - wise men, angels, doves, sheep, lambs, shepherds, cows, horses, donkeys, camels, the works. Each figure was lovingly created out of papier-mache and plaster of paris by Mr. Shadi himself.
He did it again every year after that, adding more figures each year, until failing eyesight forced him to call it quits in 1997.
The community quickly took the Christmas display to heart. Little kids grew up and brought their own kids, and then their grandkids, to see it.
Charter busses full of tourists came from as far away as San Jose and Sacramento - more than 70,000 every year.
For many people, Mr. Shadi WAS Christmas. He was a real-life Santa Claus who gave us something more precious than toys: the true spirit of the holiday.
The funny thing was that he wasn't a Christian himself. He was a Sikh. He chose a Christmas display because that was the way he could say "I love you" in a language we could understand.
Mr. Shadi died in 2002 at age 101. And then something wonderful happened. The people of El Cerrito refused to let his legacy die.
Under the leadership of former Mayor Jane Bartke, they restored the Shadi sculptures, which had deteriorated badly. That Holiday season the Christmas display made a triumphant return at the corner of Moeser and Seaview. And it's been there every Holiday season since.
But there's no guarantee it will be there next year. Bartke and her helpers - Gordon White, Richard Ritz, Jackson Lusk and Bartke's husband, Rich - are all in their 70s, and it's only a matter of time before they can't do it anymore.
Just as they stepped up 10 years ago, we need a new generation to step up and take over from them.
If you want to become part of this tradition, there's still time to learn the ropes this year because the Christmas display won't go up until Dec. 17. (It will remain there until Dec. 27.) Call Bartke at 510-235-1315, and she'll put you to work.
Financial help is always needed, too, because papier-mâché deteriorates quickly from the moisture, even though the sculptures are outdoors for only 10 days.
You can "adopt" the figure of your choice. A Wise Man (camel included) goes for $500, a shepherd for $350, and sheep are a real steal at only $25. Send a tax-deductible check to the El Cerrito Community Foundation, Inc., P. O. Box 324, El Cerrito CA 94530.
But more than money, what they really want is you.
This beloved Holiday tradition can go on for hundreds of years. Or it can go away tomorrow, and after a generation nobody will remember.
It's up to you, El Cerritans.

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