For years the citizens of San Jose enjoyed the seasonal Christmas Display that stood in the joyful splendor on Willow Street and later graced the lawns of City Hall. More recently the City Plaza Park in the heart of Downtown had been its home. The Display originated in the mind of Don Lima, and with $300 in borrowed funds, it burgeoned from a modest beginning in front of a mortuary to a spectacular extravaganza that tens of thousands stopped to view, and Life magazine considered for a feature spread. The City and the Downtown were part of a very special event each Christmastide; it was one of the more successful municipal ventures and was widely heralded.
But, alas, other forces came into play. The City Council’s priorities precluded its staging in 1978, deeming it a pleasant, but the decision did not leave enough time for private sources to attempt the job.
By 1979, a few months ago, a spirited attempt was made to resuscitate the event. Money was raised downtown with the help of the ever-faithful Don Goldeen, ideas garnered, and commitments of donated labor from private companies received: it looked hopeful. After a one-year hiatus, the children would again return to the Downtown to see elves and reindeer, shepherds and wise men. There always seems a scarcity of the last group at all times of the year. Laughter and the “ohs” and “ahs” would replace the silence. This, however, was not to be. A City union leader, thinking that the privately donated labor was usurping the role of his people, effectively scuttled that economical aspect, while a Parks and Recreation supervisor neglected to provide the artificial snow. Two unrelated incidents, both made with the best of intentions, resulted in its cancellation again. Without snow, that rather elusive commodity, that often is the bane of our sister cities in the East, the entire project was deemed impossible.
No, Virginia, there was no conspiracy to derail the Christmas event, only fallible people making human errors with too little knowledge — the ingredients of most disasters from the Garden of Eden to the Guns of August to the evening meetings of the City Council.
Can this be the end of the Christmas Display in San Jose? Perhaps not. City Plaza Park was once the site of that marvelous mid-European monstrosity of a City Hall, that fell to the redevelopment pixies; it has been the center of activity in our community for two hundred years, surrounded by our places of commerce, libraries, churches, municipal buildings–the ingredients that make up the social interaction that gives life and meaning to a City. All the disparate pieces are still in place–what is lacking seems to be the will to assemble them in a congruent manner.
If we think of images as a mental representation, a concept, then a revitalized image for San Jose on the model of the original could be the Christmas Display. Knowing full well that we would face problems as grave as the “snow gap” and as fundamental as the separation of church and state, it still seems that we might select a Commission of church and state, it still seems that we might select a Commission of twelve citizens to begin the task of restoring this event to our City. The event could begin at Thanksgiving and last until the Epiphany, January 6th. Many could be called and many chose. It could include and coordinate a variety of events over the period, such as a performance of the “Nutcracker Ballet”, Handel’s “Messiah”, the Symphony choir, school plays, and professional acting groups. It could utilize the splendor of the eclectic edifice that surround the Park: St. Joseph’s, the Civic Gallery, the Civic Auditorium, the Bank of America, and many others. The aid of other businesses might be invoked both materially and ethereally. The Metro A Trust Fund has grasped the idea and pledged $30,000; others would follow. Its influence could be seminal in stating clearly what we, as a City, wish to maintain.
I believe deeply that we are in an era of choices in the City and this society. The choices may be of terrible consequence when you imagine weighing a policeman and a youth supervisor, a library book against a street light. The City Council must make these decisions, and explain distinctly why. Tally votes and silence are not enough in the Eighties–we must lead. Surely it is possible to make a statement of purpose that will be unmistakable, for we are not dealing only with a Christmas Display, but with something much more basic to our City–a respect and continuity with our past, a zeal for the future: an acknowledgment of what we are. Yet, there is something unmistakably tranquil about Christmas, something we all fell that goes beyond elves, toys and the “Peace on Earth” signs, that runs to the basic kindness and decency that inhabit all of us, and particularly in a City that has become the home for so many dissimilar people and given sanctuary to so many in need.
It is a spark that must be nurtured.
This is a decade of choices, and we must choose in a manner, neither capricious nor punitive, yet, we must still be able to make a decision. Since government at its best encourages and promotes the industry and values of its citizens, we will do just that simple, but profound thing. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, and for several weeks thereafter, there will be snow at City Plaza Park, and music at St. Joseph’s Church, and a festival of light at the Civic Gallery, and a play at the Montgomery Theater. Handel and Bing Crosby will be among elves and shepherds, and a manger and a toyland.
It is indeed an era of choice. I choose the Christmas Display.