If you’re looking to get in the holiday spirit this season, you can find it in any number of small towns across the North Bay. Shopping in a downtown hamlet gives you the opportunity to support the local economy and enjoy picturesque main streets. You may find light poles decorated with fresh pine garland and cheery red bows, horse-drawn carriages and businesses glowing with holiday lights. You can dine out in a bistro, warm up with a hot chocolate in a café and find unique gifts for everyone on your shopping list. If you’re lucky, you may even experience some snow or get to try roasted chestnuts and mulled wine.
Here’s how local businesses and chambers of commerce in the North Bay are banding together to lure shoppers downtown for the holidays.
Come for dinner and a snow
The holiday season kickoff for downtown Windsor begins with the Winter Wine Walk, which takes place on Thursday, November 20, this year. The Winter Wine Walk is a fund-raiser for the Windsor Service Alliance (a nonprofit dedicated to meeting the needs of the community through programs such as its Food Pantry) and gives participants the opportunity to sample food and wine pairings from local vendors and wineries.
The heart of Windsor’s holiday celebration, however, is The Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Grove (CBCTG), which brings in a steady stream of visitors and is now in its sixth year. The event was inspired partly by a bah-humbug holiday season in 2008 and also by the original town Christmas tree, which the locals affectionately refer to as the “Charlie Brown tree.” (See “Oh, the Magic of Little Charlie Brown Trees” below.)
“It wasn’t a bright season in 2008,” says Karen Alves, owner and broker of Town Square Properties, who wanted to take action.
Good grief. What could Alves possibly do? She joined forces with her daughter, Summer, and three other local merchants to form a group and plan events for a better 2009. The other merchants included Lessa Vivian of Images on the Green, Nancy Lewis from Atrellis Flower and Gifts and Carra Clampitt from Eugene Burger Management Company (EBMC).
After a few brainstorming sessions, they decided to light the building tops with holiday lights and organize other activities. The also wanted to create a grove of Christmas trees for the Town Green and spotlight the original town Christmas tree. Alves contacted the Charles M. Schulz Museum and asked permission to use its name, and thus, the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Grove was born.
Originally, Alves thought the CBCTG would be a one-time Windsor event, but it’s become a tradition that the community looks forward to every year and now brings busloads of visitors from as far away as San Francisco. “I thought I’d do it one year, but it was so successful and completely snowballed,” she says. A week after wrapping up the first CBCTG, businesses and individuals contacted Alves, wanting to sponsor a tree the following year.
Downtown Windsor is a magical place to be at Christmastime, says Michael Powell, an organizer for the event and founder of Powell’s Sweet Shoppe. “It’s a grass-roots, organic event [that] takes over the downtown and sparkles. It’s beautiful,” he adds.
What’s more, the CBCTG has been good for business. “It drives business in Windsor at each snow, and it’s proven to be true that people come specifically for the snow and to walk through the trees,” he says.
“During the holidays, people go to the malls, but we’ve become a destination spot to see the snow and the lights,” says David Culley, owner of KC’s Downtown Grill in Windsor. When it “snows” on the Windsor Town Green twice each evening, there’s a big push in business as people stop by the restaurant to eat, he says.
The first year, Windsor had 44 Christmas trees in its grove. Last year, there was a small forest of more than 200 trees. A local business or family sponsors each tree; and a classroom and nonprofit organization work together to decorate it. Last year, more than 100 businesses from all over Sonoma County sponsored trees, and one tree was sponsored by a San Francisco business.
There are a few rules about decorating the trees, says Alves. Over the years, they’ve learned by experience that the natural elements (wind and rain, for example) are not a good match when it comes to tinsel and Elmer’s glue, and homemade cookie decorations tend to dissolve in the rain. “Freezing cold, driving winds are hard. Trees break loose, extension cords get pulled and it’s a big mess,” she says. And there are the inevitable challenges of maintaining a grove. One year, 22 trees fell over; and another year the local fire department advised them to pull out 13 trees that had gone brown.
Despite unpredictable weather conditions and the work it takes to manage the grove, the CBCTG is an event that local families and merchants look forward to and people come from miles around to see. And sometimes the weather cooperates through the season. “Last year, we had perfect weather and 206 trees,” says Alves.
The Windsor holiday events are organized and coordinated by volunteers, and every dollar collected from tree sponsors goes into making Windsor a destination for families during the holidays. Since it’s a volunteer-run event, no one has ever kept a spreadsheet to tally up what these events do for the businesses in Windsor, but local businesses do benefit.
The motto for Windsor’s event is: “Come for dinner and a snow.” “People come specifically for the snow and to walk through the trees,” says Powell. “While you can’t make a snowball or go sledding, the flurries are perfect for children age five and under.”
Trees are decorated the first Sunday after Thanksgiving Day and the Town Tree Lighting takes place on the first Thursday in December.
“Seeing the grove and walking through there at Christmas conjures up memories of childhood,” says Linda Kelly, Windsor town manager. “It brings people here, and each tree is different. The sponsors provide the snowmaking machine and the kids delight in that.”
On opening night, as many as 5,000 people may visit Windsor’s Town Green. Snow flurries, timed twice daily at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., attract as many as 100 to 150 people each time. The CBCTG is open 24 hours per day, seven days per week, from December 4 through 31.
The city of Napa was founded in 1847, and its holiday tree lighting ceremony has become a tradition. “We’ve been doing the lighting forever,” says Craig Smith, director of the Downtown Napa Association.
The tree lighting ceremony takes place at Veterans Memorial Park, the cultural heart of the city, on Third and Main Streets, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and everyone enjoys free cookies and hot chocolate. “The mayor does a big countdown and then throws the switch,” says Smith. “The tree lighting kicks off the season.”
Downtown Joe’s supplies free hot chocolate for the event, which is served by local Cub Scouts, and cookies are provided by Sweetie Pies.
The Christmas Parade, now in its 52nd year, is also a popular holiday event for the city. Over the years, the parade has transformed into an evening event and floats are lit up with festive and creative lights.
Both events are family affairs, says Smith. “Napa is a small-town community despite its national recognition,” says Smith. “These events help us celebrate the holidays and the community.”
Most recently, an ice rink has been set up on Second Street in the middle of downtown for families to enjoy.
The events drive a great deal of business for local restaurants just as tourist season has wound down for the area. “The winter season used to be a loss for us, because there was no traffic,” says Joe Peatman, owner of Downtown Joe’s, a brewpub in Napa that’s been open for business for 21 years. “The tree lighting signifies that it’s local season. The ceremony itself is brief, but we’re lit up for the season. It’s an event that brings in about 2,000 locals.” According to Peatman, it’s an event that draws people of all generations—grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, children and teenagers. After the tree lighting, there’s dancing at the Veterans Memorial Park Amphitheater, located along the Napa River Walk Promenade.
“People stop in for beer and calamari and many stay for dinner,” says Peatman. “Downtown businesses get a nice push on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.” According to Peatman, more people are shopping downtown for the season as well. “The trees are lit up on First Street, and many stores are staying open in the evening so people can shop,” he says.
The Napa Valley Wine Train’s Santa Train, geared for families, is another activity that brings business to downtown Napa and the Oxbow District. The Santa Train involves a 90-minute journey from downtown Napa to Yountville and back. During the trip, families can order from a snack menu and meet Santa and all his friends.
Tiburon’s annual Holiday Festival and Tree Lighting offers a unique experience by the bay and has become a tradition that draws locals and visitors from all around. The Holiday Festival takes place on the first Saturday in December and involves a full day of activities downtown, says Melanie Haddad, executive director of the Tiburon Chamber of Commerce.
There’s gingerbread house decorating, free photos with Santa Claus, and roasted chestnuts and mulled wine to enjoy on Ark Row. At 6 p.m., the mayor gives a small speech, lights the tree in Fountain Plaza, and then visitors are serenaded by carolers. Many local businesses in downtown Tiburon offer special deals that day and treat customers to cookies and candy canes—and sometimes even a glass of wine.
Local restaurants thrive during the holiday season as visitors enjoy the lights on the harbor after sunset, says Haddad. The Corinthian Yacht Club and San Francisco Yacht Club both hold decorating contests for yacht owners and the result is a bay twinkling with holiday lights.
“What’s unique about Tiburon is that we’re on the bay and we have amazing views,” says Haddad. “It’s very beautiful.”
The festivities and lights bring in business for Sam’s Anchor Café. “The tree lighting and lighting of the yachts helps get people downtown and come to Sam’s [Anchor Café] because you can see the harbor and the lights. The locals know about it, and visitors will come check it out. The holiday lighting kicks things off for us and is good for business. We’re on the peninsula and it really is beautiful,” says Steve Sears, co-owner of Sam’s.
The Parade of Lights in downtown San Rafael, which takes places on the Friday following Thanksgiving, has been a holiday tradition for 35 years. “The Parade of Lights and Winter Wonderland is a long-standing tradition in downtown. It’s a hometown parade that’s all about community,” says Joanne Webster, president and chief executive officer of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce. “The schools join in; Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts participate; many merchants drive cars in the parade; and people carry candles and sing holiday songs.”
The Winter Wonderland began more than 25 years ago. More than 10,000 pounds of ice are brought in to create the snow hill, so children can go sledding in the heart of downtown San Rafael for free on the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving. “It’s very popular; the line goes around the block,” says Webster.
The two events mark the beginning of the holiday season and drive business for downtown merchants.
“The Parade of Lights is about bringing a community together,” says Carol Thompson, executive director of the downtown San Rafael Business Improvement District. “It’s a predominately local, residential-based event that gets everyone in the holiday spirit and supports local business.”
“The Parade of Lights continues to put the focus on downtown San Rafael. It’s a great night for everyone to see your shop,” says Andre Sisneros, president of the Downtown Business Improvement District and co-owner of Gamescape on Fourth Street.
“We have one of the few thriving downtowns left. So many people are drawn away at the holidays to go to malls that to have an event that focuses on the downtown shopping corridor is critical.”
The holiday season in historic downtown Petaluma begins each year with the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus by tugboat along the Petaluma River, a tradition that began about 30 years ago. Santa and Mrs. Claus make their way from the boat dock to the River Plaza Shopping Center, greeting children and handing out candy canes.
Marisa’s Christmas Fantasia hosts Santa in the Historical Lanmart Building on Petaluma Boulevard that day. “We host Santa here and you may take your own photos free of charge,” says Helen Chisham, assistant manager at the shop. Santa is available at the Lanmart Building throughout the holiday season, and a professional photographer is on hand during the weekends to take photos, which can be purchased online.
Marisa’s Christmas Fantasia also offers ornaments from all over the world—Russia, Germany, Turkey and Egypt, for example—which you can pick right off the store’s trees. “We’ve been here for 42 years and I’ve seen four generations come to the store together to pick the ornaments,” adds Manager Paul Gravesen.
During the season, businesses and homes are glowing with thousands of holiday lights. You can stop by the Visitors Center on Lakeville Street to pick up a free map and list of addresses and take the family on the City of Lights Driving Tour.
Historic downtown Petaluma offers a fun and unique shopping experience for the whole family when downtown merchants hold their annual Holiday Open House on Saturday, December 6. Local merchants offer great shopping deals, horse and carriage rides and Morris Dancers roam and dance along the streets. There’s also face painting, balloon art, treats and more.
“Our objective is to create energy and vibrancy,” says Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association and Visitors Program. “Bring the children and spend the day. It’s very different. We’re invoking the Christmas spirit and a different shopping experience.”
On the following Saturday (December 13), you can come see a flotilla of festively decorated boats illuminating the Petaluma River Turning Basin. Individual boaters and the local yacht clubs join together for the annual Lighted Boat Parade. The parade starts at the Petaluma Marina at about 5:30 p.m. to sail into the Historic Downtown Harbor and the flotilla remains in view all night long in the Turning Basin. According to McCusker, many families enjoy dining out that day to enjoy the lights and pleasures of downtown Petaluma.
Novato’s annual tree lighting dates back to 1928, when George Ownes, president of the Novato Chamber of Commerce, endorsed a movement to have a community Christmas tree and donated $10 toward the tree.
Eighty-six years later, the tree lighting has become a tradition and other events have evolved. The festivities are carried on by many enthusiastic volunteers, says Jeanne MacLeamy, mayor pro tem of the Novato City Council. Today, there are horse-drawn carriage rides around the city and live entertainment by local children’s groups and holiday performers. Santa arrives by carriage (or fire engine) and is delivered to the stage by young dancers, and the mayor greets the crowd and does a countdown with the children for the tree lighting. This year, you can also expect to enjoy snow—and two days of snow events—according to Mark Dawson, president of the Downtown Novato Business Association.
“I’ve been a sponsor and volunteer of the Christmas tree lighting since 2004,” says Paul Price, owner of Novato Kitchen & Bath. “I do it because it’s one of those historical traditions in America that Novato shouldn't be without. The families coming out on a cold night with kids and grandparents to sing and sip hot chocolate.”
How do the holiday festivities impact downtown business?
“Events like this create positive feelings toward the downtown and all the local merchants that are involved. It’s a Jimmy Stewart, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’-movie experience that makes us love Novato,” says Price.
“I’m finding that the more functions we hold downtown creates an atmosphere of curiosity about what’s going to happen next,” adds Anne Wade, owner of Anne’s Secret Hang-Up, who also serves on the marketing committee for the Downtown Novato Business Association. “During the holidays, people come down for the beautiful and romantic carriage rides. The events bring a sense of hometown pride and remind people that there’s a downtown where people can dine as well as shop. If they don’t shop that day, they’ll come back another time, because they remember something they saw in a shop window. It’s important to hold events, as they keep bringing people back.”
Nearly 10 years ago, the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce partnered with the city of Sonoma and the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau to encourage people to “Shop Sonoma” for an intimate, small-town shopping experience. Working with local merchants, the organizations declared the weekend after Thanksgiving as “Shop Sonoma Weekend.”
“Tourism is traditionally stronger in the warmer months, so we wanted to emphasize the unique products and experiences in Sonoma and spread the word to both visitors and locals to encourage holiday shopping,” says Laurie Decker, program manager of the Sonoma Valley Economic Vitality Partnership.
The chamber of commerce encourages local residents to “Shop Sonoma” for the holidays to help support local jobs and services. “Sonoma is a low-stress and fun place to shop,” says Decker. What’s more, parking is free, she says, and there are great restaurants where you can sustain yourself.
To draw visitors, the bureau lights up the plaza, including city hall, the visitors bureau and the plaza trees, for the season. During the first week of December, the community gathers for the lighting of the holiday tree on the city hall balcony and the arrival of Santa Claus on a fire engine. There’s also a window display contest for merchants to get everyone in the holiday spirit.
The bureau encourages out-of-town visitors to come to Sonoma for a unique and old-fashioned shopping experience. “Our market is the greater Bay Area, from Sacramento to San Jose. We know that one to two visitors to San Francisco will visit outside the city, and Sonoma is 45 minutes away. We get visitors from all over the country and internationally, too. We love to have them in Sonoma,” says Wendy Peterson, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau.
“Any time locals or visitors are reminded to ‘Shop Sonoma’ it’s a good thing,” says Jessica Terwilliger, owner of Large Leather on the plaza. “Everything we sell in the store, we make right here. It’s good for the locals and good for the visitors looking for goods that are made here. ‘Shop Sonoma’ is an important message.”
Local merchants rely on locals and visitors to shop in Sonoma to be financially successful, adds Peterson. “The split in sales tax revenues shows that 60 percent comes from out-of-town visitors, while 40 percent comes from local shoppers. It’s vital for our local businesses to have economic stability all year round.”
The small, sparse and sad-looking Charlie Brown tree that captured America’s heart in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” debuted in 1965 and has aired in the United States every year since. It was the first prime-time animated TV special based on the “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz.
What is it about little Charlie Brown trees and communities like Windsor? “It brings a community together, and the feeling that the Peanuts gang has over people is what makes them so special,” says Craig Schulz, son of the late Charles M. Schulz.
As for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” it remains a favorite Christmas show, which is approaching its 50th anniversary since first airing. “Everyone’s grown up watching the special and the poor little pathetic tree. People embrace the feel of that and the goodwill of fellow man.”
The Schulz family sponsors a tree on Windsor’s Town Green and visits the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Grove every year. “It’s a tremendous event to see the restaurants lit up, the emotions of families and kids, and the snow. It’s so special to people, and it’s enjoyable to go up there and watch,” says Schulz.
Sine its founding, the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Grove has been a community event, rather than a decorating competition, with the objective to bring people together. As for Windsor’s little Charlie Brown tree, a sparse cedar tree that the town once abandoned, well, it remains behind the fountain on the Town Green and is decorated for the event with one red ornament ball, just as it was decorated in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” to proudly honor the grove.
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