Hathaway Family Tree

By Kelly Mahan Herrick   |   December 13, 2018
A crew of elves helped decorate the Hathaway Family Tree on San Ysidro Road earlier this week

Montecito beautification elves, along with Montecito firefighters, Manning Park ranger Doug Norton, and school kids from Montecito Union School, spent the afternoon of Monday, December 10, decorating the Hathaway Family Tree – also known as the Montecito Community Tree – near the Manning Park tennis courts on San Ysidro Road. The tradition of decorating the tree goes back over 50 years, thanks to the Hathaway family. 

In the early 1960s, the festive holiday tradition was born thanks to then-Montecito Fire Chief Don Hathaway and his family. Each December, Don, along with his wife, Helen, and kids Dean and Ronda, would rise in the middle of the night to conduct a super secret mission: to decorate the Monterey Pine tree at the corner of North Jameson and Highway 101, which at the time was only about seven feet tall. 

Montecito firefighters helped with the tree trimming

As the tree grew, so did the “elves” who decorated it: friends and neighbors were let in on the secret and invited to join, and Helen would make gingerbread cookies and hot chocolate for everyone. Eventually the Montecito firefighters got involved, bringing ladders to help decorate the top of the tree. According to Ronda, each year Helen would look in the newspaper in the days following the decoration mission, to see if there was anything written about it; she kept a scrapbook full of photos and article clippings over the years. 

In the late 1970s, Doug Coale, owner of Mesa Tree, began bringing his cherry picker to hoist volunteers to place garland on the top half of the tree. In the 90s, Don enlisted Dana Newquist to carry on the tradition, and Dana aka “the head elf,” would organize the tree-trimming event each year, eventually enlisting the help of Mindy Denson and the Montecito Association Beautification Committee. Members of the community were also invited to take part, and a large collection of miscellaneous holiday decorations were used year after year. 

In 2011, the tree became distressed and had to be removed; Don Hathaway passed away that same year, in July. With the help of some generous donors, Newquist organized the purchase and installation of a new, 18-foot Blue Aptos Redwood tree, which was planted near the tennis courts at Manning Park on December 15, 2012. Beneath the tree is a plaque honoring the Hathaway Family. Since the relocation of the tree, the decorating has taken place during the day, and many firefighters, members of the Montecito Association Beautification Committee, and school kids decorate the tree every year to mark the holiday season. 

Last year, the tree trimming, scheduled for mid-December, was canceled as the Thomas Fire raged in the Montecito foothills. Just days after a community-wide evacuation was lifted, a handful of dedicated elves turned out on Christmas Eve to trim the tree, without the usual help of Montecito firefighters.  “We’re glad to be back this year,” Newquist said. “It’s a very special year,” Denson added, grateful that the tree trimming tradition continues on. 


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