Tree lighting ceremony

An in-person tree lighting ceremony returned earlier this month after a one-year hiatus because of the COVID -19 pandemic.

The tree lighting that climaxed the Dec. 4 Holiday Light Parade has become an annual event to usher in Tracy’s holiday season.

The tree was lit up at the Front Street Plaza at Sixth Street and Central Avenue where the tree-lighting has taken place in recent years, except for last year when Covid-19 restrictions caused it to be canceled.

But the tradition of decorating a community tree is much older than “recent years.” It stretches back more than a century. In fact, 100 years ago, in 1921, the decorated tree was located in front of City Hall (now the Fire Administration Building) at Ninth Street and Central Avenue. And it was part of a citywide, multi-denominational Christmas celebration.

Tracy Press Editor Henry Hull reported on preparations for the holiday season that year.

“Tracy will have a splendid community Christmas tree this year, one that will be equal or better than last year,” he wrote.

Henry noted that the Tracy Lumber Co. had donated the tree, “a 30-foot one and will have it sent down from Sonora.”

The tree will be placed in front of the City Hall on Central Avenue and will be decorated and kept illuminated every night through Christmas week, he said while pointing out that the community Christmas program will be at the Arlington Theatre on Sixth Street.

“Christmas cheer this year is being dished up in great ladles at the community celebration Friday evening. Dec. 23,” the Press editor told his readers.

Pushing the “forward” button a quarter century to 1946, we find the community Christmas tree had moved north on Central Avenue — to the middle of the street just a few feet south of the intersection with Highway 50 (11th Street).

“At the intersection stands Tracy’s pride and joy, a 32-foot white fir tree that was cut in Sonora by the PG&E crew and transported to Tracy free of charge by Thomas Hansen of the Westside Market,” my dad, Harvey Matthews, then editor of the Press, informed his readers.

The tree was placed in the middle of the street by the local PG&E crew, which decorated it with approximately 175 lights.

“The custom of having a tree in such an appropriate spot, where it can be viewed by thousands of tourists, as well as the local gentry, was inaugurated several years before the war,” he said. “It was discontinued during the war, and the second tree is one since the termination of hostilities.”

The tree was described as “the largest and most beautifully shaped tree yet acquired by the city.”

As part of the 1946 celebration, Santa made his first appearance at the annual theatre party for kids at 2 o’clock Dec. 21 in the afternoon at the Grand Theatre.

Over the years the annual holiday parade became a traditional event, providing Santa Claus a way to make his entrance in Tracy in a grand fashion.

In 1946, a year after World War II had ended, the Jolley Elf came to town in an Army Jeep, but for several years in the days when Southern Pacific passenger trains stopped at the local train depot, Santa stepped off an SP Daylight and then climbed aboard a Tracy fire truck for the ride up Central Avenue.

For many years, Santa arrived in town in the daytime — in a Saturday morning parade before Christmas. Dick Hastie, before, during and after being Tracy’s mayor, loved playing Santa Claus and riding atop the fire apparatus.

As lighting technology advanced, the evening light parade we have today took over and has generated big crowds. The popularity of the light parade bodes well for its continuation as Tracy’s way of ushering in the holiday season and keeping the tradition of lighting the community tree, whether you call it Christmas or Holiday, alive.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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