The presence of an elderly, out-of-town man with flowing white beard and eccentric bright red clothing who brought a chair and sat for hours on the sidewalk adjacent to Berkeley’s Downtown BART station did not deter scores of excited children and adults from flocking to the plaza on a rainy Friday evening for a festive event—the ceremonial lighting of a holiday tree by the Downtown Berkeley Association.
DBA Executive Director Jon Caner and City of Berkeley Economic Development Director Michael Caplan watched cheerfully while numerous party-goers and passersby lined up to enjoy free hot chocolate as thick as pudding from Almare Gelato, delicious jam-filled cookies from PIQ, and a capella entertainment from the Cal Jazz Choir.
As the students sang about a homeless child in a strange city—“Now sound the trumpet, beat on the drum! The wondrous holy night has come!” from “Jamaican Noel”—staff from the adjacent Downtown Verizon store circulated passing out “You’re A Winner!” postcards offering gift cards for those who made a return visit.
Children and adults had their picture taken with sidewalk sitting Santa who was solicitously attended, not shooed along, by elves dressed in the florescent green field attire of the DBA Downtown “ambassadors”. A few street kids and homeless people were part of the crowd and partook of the refreshments, and on this evening of good feeling I didn’t see anyone tell them to go away.
The official lighting ceremony was briefly deferred while waiting for the late Mayor Tom Bates, who finally showed up with family members in tow to light the tree (the unverified rumor in the crowd was that Bates had been delayed by lack of parking nearby).
Caner called the crowd to attention for “the first lighting of the BART Plaza tree, hopefully the first time for many years to come!” and handed the microphone to Bates.
“Thank you, it’s a wonderful evening…this is fabulous, we really appreciate what is happening in the Downtown”, Bates said. “This is another way of celebrating our wonderful Downtown. So without further ado, I’m going to plug these two cords.”
He asked an audience member to join him, but she declined, perhaps dubious of the results of bringing two electrical connections together by hand in the drizzly outdoors. But Bates survived without mishap, and the tall, white, star-topped, tree (wires and a pole, we should note, not a cut tree) lit up in the planter bed behind him to applause from the crowd.
“Please come to Downtown many times over the holiday season, be entertained, shop, and be merry!” Caner exhorted. Other introduced dignitaries besides Bates included North Berkeley City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who has apparently added Downtown to the list of local commercial districts he now feels are safe to visit after dark.
Despite the rain, Downtown was packed and bustling, as it usually is. Out of curiosity I stood on the Shattuck sidewalk and counted just those people walking by, excluding those at the event. In five minutes no less than 115 passersby of all ages, ethnicities, and apparent income levels passed by me, meaning one pedestrian, on average, every 2.6 seconds.
The event recalled Downtown holiday decorations and ceremonies which go back at least to the 1920s, as far as I know. On and off for years decorations have been hung from the light poles. This year they’re large purple and gold balls. In the early 1930s there was a controversy over “modernistic” designs created by WPA workers, and the city returned to more “traditional” décor. There’s often a tree, and a Downtown arrival of Santa ceremony, all geared to entice local shoppers to patronize the downtown businesses.
Berkeley has a traditional “Municipal Christmas Tree” from the early 1940s, a Giant Sequoia in Civic Center Park, but it has been a few years since the City last lit it up.