Napa Valley Holiday Traditions and Memories
While the Napa Valley has become a destination for visitors during the holidays, locals who live here and spend our holidays here year after year have some long-standing and “only in Napa” traditions that remain, as well as memories of those very special traditions that have vanished with the evolution of the “new Napa” we are living in today.
For me, Christmas Eve midnight services, checking out the lighted homes around the valley, the downtown Napa stores that stayed open late nearly every night (only for the holidays), checking out the Gifts ‘n Tyme craft fair, ordering dried fruit to send to the relatives in the Midwest, cutting down our tree at the Bucher Tree Farm on Big Rand Road, baking cookies (lots and LOTS of cookies) and taking our pot to the back door of The Depot to get our holiday malfatti from Clemente, top the list. More recently, Holidays in Yountville (formerly Festival of Lights), the Santa Train (the special Napa Valley Wine Train for kids, and kids at heart), the now established tradition of Napa on Ice, produced by the Motts, and admiring the wineries that go “all out” to deck the halls and walls, signal that it is indeed the most wonderful time of the year.
Many Napans, past and present, responded with loads of memories when I inquired. Katy Hannagan Ambrose recalls getting trees from Bruderer’s on Solano Avenue and the singing Christmas tree at Grace Baptist Church. Conni Shellhorn said that they always went to Bruderer’s too. Cutting Christmas trees down on Big Ranch Road is common memory I share with others such as Jenn Williams, Crystal Garello Brown and Lindsay Daum.
John Bryden said that they went to Big Ranch Road, Solano Avenue, Mt. George and Carneros tree farms. Carla Greenan recalls getting their tree on Darms Lane and getting German glass ornaments from Herritt’s Flowers and Gifts.
Mike Shaw also remembers that there were many Christmas tree farms in Napa, and that during this time of the year there were lots of cars with trees tied on top, lamenting that now most or all of the tree farms are gone. Sadly, I agree that it is true, over time those tree farms were all re-planted to a more lucrative crop: wine grapes.
Joanne Weaver Curtis remembers having a booth with her mother and sister at the Gifts ‘n Tyme craft fair at the Napa Fairgrounds (now Napa Valley Expo) for more than 30 years!
Paul Stokey was born in Napa at Queen of the Valley Hospital and brought home on Christmas Eve. Back then, Herritt’s and Cudaback’s were a mainstay he remembers, and definitely inspired him not only to make holiday arrangements all around the house for his mother, but to start his own flower business. Stokey is now the owner and master creator of Tesoro floral design.
Rebecca Dudley Davis has a memory of “talking to Santa” via a telephone set up at the fire station on Seminary Street among their giant decorations. She said that it would be a mandatory stop while out driving around looking at decorations, a family tradition.
Santa did show up in a few other places around town. Mervyn’s, Carithers, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Wards are a few retail establishments of the past that were mentioned, where he would stop to listen to Christmas wishes. Martha Cervone also remembers him at Albert’s Department Store. He is now the star of the annual Napa Downtown Holiday Parade.
Speaking of Santa, Doug Gerard has apparently helped the big guy out, breaking out the red velvet suit, the white beard and hair, and black boots and bells. From the early 90s, for about a decade, he carried this responsibility, primarily at Alta Heights Elementary School.
We took our four children on the Santa Train every year for about ten years, said Tere Ertola Charney who also celebrates Hanukkah, and remembers that it was so much fun to bring Buttercream donuts while all of the children had a personal discussion with a very kind and patient Santa.
Joan Arruda Latimer shared a heartwarming memory. Her grandfather was a member of the Native Sons of the Golden West. Back in the early 50s, she remembers as though it was yesterday, Santa coming through the back door with his “ho, ho, ho” heading towards the children. He stopped along the way and kissed her grandmother! She was so mad at him that she refused to sit on his lap or accept a stocking. The first thing she did was to tell her grandpa all about that darned Santa. Years later, she discovered it was her grandpa who was that Santa!
Amongst the most popular Christmas displays in memory is the house at the corner of Third Street and Silverado Trail, the neighborhood near Foster Road and Imola, the house in Browns Valley at Century Oaks Park, Penny Lane and Paradise Lane, as well as the life-size nativity further south on the west side of Silverado Trail between Third and Soscol Avenue. Conni Shellhorn and Susan Adams credit Gary West and his sister as the creators of the amazing life-size nativity scene on Silverado Trail.
Arvin Chaudhary remembers clipping out the holiday light display winners from the Napa Valley Register, loading up the station wagon and then navigating by map to see them. Kimberly Menager’s grandmother would load all the grandkids up in her big Lincoln Continental (later a motorhome) and head out to sing carols and look at the Christmas lights. As her grandmother aged, the roles reversed and she would take her out to see the lights.
The house at Silverado Trail and Third, “Charlie’s House” reportedly related to the Cudaback Nursery, always had great decorations with the mannequins in the window, said Kim Lesiewski. This house came up as an iconic “only in Napa” memory over and over again. I too remember driving by that house in absolute wonder. I never remember seeing it actually being decorated, but when I was small we lived very close by and remember that every year, one day it was seemingly suddenly, yet completely, lit! In my memory, that house looked almost like an elegant, crystalized, gingerbread castle. The tree in that front window was always beyond magnificent.
The Foster Road Mr. and Mrs. Santa house is credited to the Hard family. They dressed up and passed out candy, and back then it was right by the Kay Von (KVON) Drive-In movie theater. That should take us all back a few years.
Nancy Guynes shared the tradition of the Santa Sleigh from Napa State Hospital. She said that it has been a long-standing tradition since she was a very little girl, for more than 50 years, and is still making treasured memories. Michael Conley who shared the pictures past and present concurred. Many people share this memory, of the sleigh traveling throughout the neighborhoods near Phillips Elementary School. It continues each year, thanks to the Napa State Hospital Fire Department.
Some family traditions are very personal, such as the tradition shared by Marian Newman. Her family wrote something important that happened that year on a tablecloth. One sister embroidered all of the memories onto several tablecloths. For more than 35 years her parents have been gone, yet all five children have a tablecloth with the memories of several generations stitched in time. They love reading them year after year.
One of our traditions, started with my daughter Gracie seventeen years ago, is that we add a special Christmas pin (or sometimes two) to her holiday stocking every year. I borrowed this idea from my friend Lori Powell, and I absolutely love how it has evolved.
Several people shared tasty holiday memories. Sue Harman remembers shopping in Napa with her best friend, Terry Kane, and then going to Partrick’s for a chocolate treat. Carol Courtney Veal recalls the butterscotch candy leis from the Community Projects Christmas Fancy Fair.
Steven Ledesma said that they always went to the home of his grandparents to make tamales on Christmas Eve. After his grandparents had passed away, they went to his dad’s house. Now, everyone comes to his house to keep making those tamales—the fourth generation is passing the tradition on to the fifth generation.
Like me, Ann Doucett remembers that every Christmas Eve they would go to The Depot with their pot, though they got ravioli. I still get my malfatti from Clemente and his Cittoni family at Val’s. Ray Mischkot reminisces about the polenta and gravy made with baccala (dried, salted cod) on Christmas Eve, explaining that it goes back to meatless fasting, as well as his mom’s ravioli on Christmas Day and warm Tom and Jerry cocktails on New Year’s Eve.
Diane Kathka Merritt would enjoy Christmas morning breakfast at her mom’s house with homemade cinnamon rolls that she, along with her own daughter, eventually helped make. Now Christmas morning is celebrated at her house with the same homemade cinnamon rolls, and the tradition gradually being taken over by her three grandchildren.
Edie Driscoll was fortunate to have Christmas dinner on the family farm near Imola (remember that Imola, like most areas within Napa’s city limits, was primarily agricultural not so long ago).
Similarly, Jodi Shavlik remembers her Uncle Stan’s place on Wild Horse Valley Road, and that her great-grandparents had been married on Christmas Day. So the grand finale of Christmas Day was that everyone would converge at her uncle’s house to share red and white anniversary cake. She calls this, “Napa perfection!”
Debbie Percelay recalls that while Chanukah is not a major holiday, they always find ways to come together, celebrate (and eat!). She says that for many Napa Jews, Christmas Eve (or as they call it Erev Navidad) is spent enjoying Chinese Food at Wah Sing Restaurant with a fun group of congregants and friends, followed by heading to the movie theatre and then finally meeting up to enjoy a dessert smorgasbord.
Growing up Jewish in Napa in the 60s and 70s, Debbie also remembers that one of her family’s Chanukah traditions was that with her two brothers, they each received a butterscotch candy lei from the Fancy Fair. They also never missed driving past Charlie’s house at a Third Street and Silverado Trail and admiring their beautiful tree with what seemed to be twinkling with a million tiny lights. Another more recent local addition to Chanukah is the Napa Valley Chabad’s public lighting of the Giant Chanukiah (Chanukah menorah).
The sounds of Christmas and the holiday season are always music to my ears. Carol Lalonde remembers Christmas caroling as a child with family friends. Nancy Johnson remembers Napa High performing the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the end of their Christmas concert. Midnight Mass is remembered beautifully by Karen Sullivan Peterson. For me, our Christmas Eve midnight service always ended with “Silent Night.”
Finally, giving back during the holidays cannot be ignored. From the Salvation Army bell ringers, to those that serve in local community kitchens and take special care of needy families and shut-ins. Charlene Murphy remembers that as a Girl Scout they made little care packages of cookies and candies and passed them out at Piner’s and other old folks homes. My mother, Napa-born native Elaine Adams, also mentioned singing Christmas carols for and visiting with the elderly.
Doug Gerard remembers that every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas along with his young daughter, Elizabeth Renee, they would buy a turkey with all of the trimmings to take to the Food Bank or Salvation Army. For them it was a valuable, feel-good lesson. He wanted her to learn that they had a full table and bellies, and they should share because they could.
This holiday season in Napa, make or continue, those very personal traditions that can happen “only in Napa.” Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year!