Two Remarkable San Francisco Holiday Traditions

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Two Remarkable San Francisco Holiday Traditions
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Walking the indoor labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Jo Miller …

At a pretty Victorian house in the Mission District of San Francisco, something extraordinary has been going on for 23 years. A tree grows at 3650 21st St. between Sanchez and Church streets, attracting thousands of visitors each December. Elsewhere across the city at the top of Nob Hill, a slow but steady stream of individuals enters Grace Cathedral during breaks in the heavy December schedule of evensongs, services, and concerts. Once inside, they calmly proceed to walk in circles. What's the story behind both of these San Francisco holiday traditions?

Tom and Jerry's House

Transplanted to the outdoors as a potted house plant in 1973 by the owners, whose names are Tom and Jerry, the pine on 21st Street has grown to 65 feet and is the centerpiece of the Bay Area's most spectacular private display of Christmas decorations. Each December, Tom and Jerry spend six full weeks festooning their home with a spectacular display, attracting crowds from miles around to the tip-top of a very steep hill. A hydraulic boom truck is required to place a massive star atop the tree, and the pair is assisted by a team of eight with decorating. A live Santa attends each evening to pose for photos at this re-creation of Santa's North Pole workshop, and he passes out 12,000 candy canes, too!

Santa's Workshop

Both of the Tom and Jerry red stockings hanging from the garage roof are 12 feet high and stuffed with oversized teddy bears. Enormous gift-wrapped boxes, each as big as a compact car, are stacked beneath the tree, which boasts 5,000 lights and multi-colored baubles the size of basketballs. Dozens more presents spill out from the chimney to the rooftop below. A motorized train circles the tree skirting, providing a free ride for its passenger, a giant, smiling stuffed polar bear. A Ferris wheel made of 8,500 K'nex pieces is included in the display, along with Mickey Mouse, a giant Barbie doll, animated puppets, dozens of soft animals and cuddly toys, and Tom and Jerry dolls perched front-and-center on a 10-foot wreath.

And They Came...

Tom Taylor and Jerry Goldstein estimate their visitor numbers now reach 30,000 annually, but they don't care to venture a guess as to their expenditure on electricity, storage, maintenance, security, mounting, and dismounting. The lights come on at 5:30 p.m. and remain lit until about midnight as pedestrians and cars pass by. The owners' special request is no horn honking, and they do prefer folks to park at the base of the hill to arrive on foot. They must have some very tolerant neighbors! The decorations remain up from two weeks before Christmas until January 2. Come and appreciate this brilliant Bay Area institution while it lasts to make it part of your own free and fun holiday traditions, too.

Grace Cathedral's Labyrinth

Grace Cathedral is the most imposing structure atop Nob Hill. Throughout December, the famed Choir of Men and Boys perform favorites of the season, the resounding hallelujahs conclude Handel's "Messiah" masterpiece, and a brass and organ ensemble fills the neo-gothic space accompanied by carillon bells. Yet another tradition goes on here. When the carolers and concert-goers are gone, when the folding chairs have been removed, when the cathedral is empty and still, I walk the floor's 35-foot labyrinth. Beneath the vaulted ceilings and 32 stained glass windows, the floor labyrinth is based on a medieval labyrinth from 1220 in the cathedral in Chartres, France. Walking along the pattern is a form of meditation. The labyrinth walking experience is especially popular during the holiday season, when candles are lit and music accompanies the peaceful labyrinth walkers, some on their way in and some on their way out, a metaphor for journeys in one's life. Try it and enjoy!

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