Holiday Festivities in Montecito
It was a welcome sight, two years in the making: the usual crowd of Montecito locals gathered this past Saturday to trim the giant tree near the Manning Park tennis courts on San Ysidro Road. The tradition took a hiatus last year because of the pandemic; the tree was trimmed quietly by a skeletal crew of elves.
“We’re happy to be back in full force this year,” said Dana Newquist, who inherited the job of trimming the tree in the early 1990s.
It’s a festive tradition that goes back many decades, and we retell it here each year to keep the memory alive. In the early 1960s, then Montecito Fire Chief Don Hathaway and his wife, Helen, and children Dean and Ronda, would rise in the middle of the night each December 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 residents would awake to find the tree decked out in garland and ornaments, wondering who among them had decorated the tree.
The tree grew and grew, and so did the group of “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. The story goes that 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.
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 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 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.
It was in 2011 that 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, the Montecito Association Beautification Committee, and school kids decorate the tree every year to mark the holiday season.
In 2017, 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. In 2020, the pandemic was cause for another quiet event, but this year, dozens of people, including Montecito firefighters, turned out to reconnect and deck out the tree, just prior to the first annual Holiday Magic Parade.