Vintage Folk Art Holiday Display in El Cerrito--
Beloved Tradition Returns for 67th year thanks to community volunteers.
Published in the Contra Costa Marketplace magazine, December 2016 - Contra Costa Marketplace
El Cerrito, CA -- Hand in hand, a man will whisper to his child, “My parents used to bring me here on Christmas Eve when I was a little boy.” Then he might tell the story of the Three Wise Men. Perhaps the boy will try to count the sheep on the hillside or find one of the two dogs. Scenes like this will be repeated many times this month as the “Sundar Shadi Holiday Display” returns to a hillside in El Cerrito, and as families stop by to enjoy the collection of hand-made human figures, animals and buildings that, when assembled, depict the historical walk of the wise men toward Bethlehem—lit by the glow of a sparkling star under the gaze of a golden-haired angel. This holiday display has been delighting the residents of El Cerrito, and visitors from far and wide, since Mr. Sundar Shadi first put his creations on display in 1950. This year, visitors will be enchanted by dozens of sheep and their shepherds, camels and camel drivers, dogs and donkeys, and the three wise men as they approach the dwellings and domes of Bethlehem. The entire display was hand-crafted by the late Mr. Shadi, a long-time resident of El Cerrito, and it is truly a folk art treasure. The camels, sheep and donkeys are made mostly of stucco over chicken wire, balanced on strips of salvaged wood. The buildings of Bethlehem are made from old wooden milk crates, coffee tins and other recycled and salvaged items. Villagers and wise men are stick-and-wire figures with beards made from discarded rope. And all the figurines have quaint, hand-painted features. The collection is in storage, awaiting its 67th debut on Sunday, December 11th. Local Boy Scout Troop #104 has already prepped the hillside by spreading three truckloads of wood chips in the areas where the figures will be placed. Other volunteers will place more than 100 buildings at the top of the hill as the “Town of Bethlehem” on Saturday. On Sunday, more volunteers will transport all the villagers, animals and the Wise Men from storage to their hillside home for the holidays. Mr. Shadi, a Sikh gentleman originally from India who immigrated to the United States to attend UC Berkeley in the 1920’s, began the collection with a single Christmas star in 1949 and added an angel the next year, and then animals, figurines and buildings in the following years. During his lifetime, the display graced the hillside next to his home on Arlington Boulevard; neighbors would gather on the sidewalk, and cars would slow to a crawl driving by. Many older residents remember this as an annual Christmas tradition from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Mr. Shadi died in 2002 at the age of 101, and local volunteers now arrange for the display on open space down the hill not far from the original site. A committee including El Cerrito Mayor Greg Lyman, and three former mayors, has been meeting for months to make all the necessary arrangements. Former Mayor Jane Bartke and her husband, former Mayor Rich Bartke, are dedicated volunteers and work hard to ensure that the stories being told are historically accurate and that restoration of the figures are done in Mr. Shadi’s traditional style. “Mr. Shadi gave El Cerrito a wonderful gift that families have been enjoying for years and years, and we will maintain it just the way he made it so long ago,” said Jane Bartke. The Sundar Shadi Holiday Display is a public display that can be viewed from December 11th through the 27th. It will be lit each evening from 5 to 10 pm, and there will be musical performances on five evenings to entertain visitors. This year, a “Little Farm” made by Mr. Shadi is also on display in the window at Pastime Hardware in El Cerrito. It has a large barn, two houses, a few small villagers as well as horses, cows and chickens. Years ago, this scene was set up in front of the former Shadi home on Arlington Boulevard. Former Mayor Mae Ritz cleaned up the collection and worked with volunteers to set up the window scene for all to enjoy. For some local residents this may be a new Christmas tradition; others may be returning for the fifth time or the fifth decade. All who visit will be making memories that will last a lifetime.
Contra Costa Marketplace - December 2016