A Page from History: The twisty past of Ocean Beach’s holiday tree
What do you know about the OB tree? It always leans to the left ... right? Well, that would depend on your vantage point. Or what side of the (chain link) fence you’re on.
But all that aside, the Ocean Beach community Christmas tree is greeting its 41st consecutive season this year, and its preposterous, zany and improbable history is certainly something to celebrate.
What’s that you say? A few decades doesn’t qualify as history in your book? Then take heart, for the tradition of a community Christmas tree in Ocean Beach really goes back almost a century.
A deep dive into the recesses of the Ocean Beach Historical Society’s archives revealed that the earliest record we have of a similar fete was the Christmas Tree Festival at Lomaland in Point Loma in 1909. Writing in the Palo Alto Citizen, L.P. Prathward described the event as “by far the most delightful celebration of the yuletide holiday we had ever witnessed. A beautiful Shetland pony, Exile, loaded down with great bags containing presents” for the children of Lomaland, was led into the rotunda of the Temple of Peace, where each child came forward one by one to select a gift.
The earliest Ocean Beach community Christmas tree that we know of was decorated on Christmas Eve 1926. The tree was displayed at the corner of Newport Avenue and Cable Street and was a collaborative effort by the Ocean Beach Woman’s Club and the OB Chamber of Commerce.
As described in The Beach News: ”The community celebration will commence at 8 o’clock and there will be a series of beautiful tableaux, with appropriate yuletide songs by the Woman’s Chorus, assisted by various bands of carol singers who will meet at the scene of the Christmas tree. There will be a sure-enough Santa Claus who will present candy and holiday tokens to the children in attendance. [Sunset Cliffs developer] John P. Mills has provided from his Point Loma property a magnificent tree which will be decorated and illuminated in gorgeous style, and the occasion will be made a merry one for young and old alike.”
We can’t say for sure that the tradition was observed annually, but the Woman’s Club and the Chamber of Commerce were still at it 30 years later. “Here’s a chance for everybody to sing the old Christmas carols,” Helen Ferguson, music chair for the OB Woman’s Club, said in calling attention to the old-fashioned community carol sing that was to be held at the foot of Newport Avenue on Dec. 22, 1956.
“The scene of the sing is the big beautiful Christmas tree there. It is sponsored by the OB Chamber of Commerce, assisted by the Woman’s Club. Russ Wilson of the Blue Pacific Nursery will install a manger and figurines near the tree. The Bettina Mango Studio will furnish a group of youthful accordionists,” according to the Peninsula News of Dec. 20.
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How about this tale, recorded by former OB Historical Society President Carol Bowers, which she called “Born in a Bar, Raised in the Sand”? Rich James and his brother Ron of OB’s James Gang screen printing shop were supporting another local establishment, The Sunshine Company Saloon, one gloomy October afternoon in 1980. The brothers were discussing community events, community spirit and the joy that the Fourth of July fireworks had brought to Ocean Beach earlier that year.
“We were just brainstorming,” Ron said. “Rich came up with the most logical answer — a community tree. At first we decided that a 20-foot tree would be a good size ... but the more we drank, the taller the tree grew.”
Grow it did, to the extent that the tree the brothers and several friends brought all the way down to Ocean Beach from Mount Shasta was some 60 feet tall!
“That was the most beautiful tree,” said brother Mike James, longtime auctioneer at the OB Town Council’s Food and Toy Drive Auction and announcer at the Ocean Beach Holiday Parade. “The guy up in Mount Shasta was a tree dealer whose customers included big resorts and Disneyland.”
SDG&E provided crane services and labor to install the tree in the sand at the foot of Newport Avenue, and local schoolchildren helped with the decorations. Brother Greg James used heavy equipment to dig a trench from the lifeguard station a block north to run electricity to the tree.
James Gang underwrote much of the costs and formed the OB Tree Committee for fundraising purposes, which included the first auction at the Sunshine Company Saloon. James Gang artist Dale Sedenquist designed the first OB tree T-shirt, which was extremely popular.
For the next few years, James Gang sourced trees from the Mount Palomar property of former OB Hardware store owner Roy Bonham. This proved to be very tricky, and in 1981 the efforts of seven men and eight women were required to wrestle the fallen tree onto a flatbed semi.
Brother Pat James, longtime president of the OB Historical Society, related an incident in which the 1982 tree had an altercation with a freeway overpass en route from Palomar to OB. “That tree was badly damaged,” Pat recalled. “We had to get some angle iron and put it back together.”
Those first few years saw the OB Tree Committee park a small trailer in the pier parking lot, where a staff of “secur-i-tree” volunteers maintained a vigorous vigil over the community conifer. “We played Christmas music all night, and it was a lot of fun,” said Mike James. “I wish they still did that.”
In 1985, San Diego City Councilman Bill Cleator arranged for a large pine to be transplanted from Hospitality Point at Mission Bay to a planter at the bottom of Newport Avenue. The live tree, known as the “Cleator tree,” struggled to survive in the salty air and sandy soil. After a little over a decade it was relocated to Robb Field but did not survive. Of all the OB trees, the Cleator tree was the Charlie Browniest.
Through the efforts of community activist Claudia Jack, in the past 15 years the community has annually been able to source a more local tree that was scheduled to be removed anyway, for one reason or another.
More recently, and due to the concrete cylinder it is “planted” in, the OB tree has tended to curve or lean one way or another most years. Of course, this habit has only served to endear the tree to locals as a unique and iconic holiday symbol. This year’s tree is no exception.
The leaning tree is now a sought-after Christmas ornament, and 2020 saw the debut of Crooked Tree Holiday Ale.
Again in 2021, holiday community activities including the Ocean Beach parade, the auction, craft fairs and sale of OB tree merchandise all help support the OB Town Council’s Food and Toy Drive, this year aiming to help make things merry and bright for 150 local families. To donate or get involved, visit obtowncouncil.org/food-and-toy-drive.
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). Pat and Mike James and the writings of the late Carol Bowers in Sea Scrolls, the Historical Society newsletter, contributed to this article. Basic membership in the Historical Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is $15 annually, tax-deductible.