The Immigrant Who Started El Cerrito’s Favorite Christmas Tradition
In 1949, Sundar Shadi built a wooden star like the one above, and displayed it in his yard. Within a few years, he had built an entire city. (Spencer Silva/KQED)
Every December, El Cerrito is home to one of the country’s most impressive Christmas displays. Scores of handmade figurines — wise men, sheep, camels — populate a massive tableau of Bethlehem, on a site that’s ordinarily marked by the presence of large electrical towers and overgrown vegetation.
For the better part of a month, the display’s lights shine bright, while holiday music echoes from speakers buried beneath stuccoed sheep. Thousands visit the display each year, from all over the region, and though it has been hosted at this particular site only since 2002, the tradition is nearly 70 years old.
It takes dozens of volunteers — including a local Boy Scout troop and off-duty firefighters — to move the statues from a nearby facility up the hill and then painstakingly arrange them into a super-sized diorama, piece by piece.
A recent addition is a two-dimensional cutout of a man holding what appears to be a rake. It’s the late Sundar Shadi, the man who started it all.
“It’s an amazing thing he did,” said Jane Bartke, one of several former El Cerrito mayors who keep the project alive.
Bartke, who has lived in El Cerrito since 1963, was quick to point out that although the display features Christian imagery — most notably, the tablet inscribed with a passage from the Gospel of Luke — the display is not exclusively for those who celebrate Christmas.
“We refer to it as a Bethlehem scene,” Bartke said. “There is no nativity. There will never be a nativity scene. He was not a Christian.”
That’s right. The man whose name is synonymous with Christmas in El Cerrito, Sundar Shadi, was not Christian. He was Sikh.
Shadi emigrated in 1921 from what’s now Pakistan to the United States to study horticulture at UC Berkeley. Eight years later, he earned a master’s degree in the same field, but he couldn’t find work in academia. Some say that was because of the color of his skin.
So he took a job at a gas station. Eventually, he saved up enough money to buy that gas station, and many others. He earned enough money to retire at 49.
But he never lost his passion for horticulture. He turned the empty lot next to his house into an elaborate garden. Then his wife, Dorothy, encouraged him to take up a new hobby.
“It was driving Dorothy crazy because he couldn't be outside [tending his garden in the winter] so she said he should do something,” Bartke explained. “They debated putting a Santa Claus up or star, and they decided to put a star up on the hillside. And that's how it all started.”
In 1949, Shadi built a large wooden star and put it in the lot adjacent to their house. Things escalated from there, and as the years went on, he built a whole city from milk cartons, shower curtains, plaster and chicken wire. Over the years, Shadi’s elaborate gardens and holiday display became the stuff of legend.
“He was known to me as ‘the man with the beautiful garden,’ ” said Zach Gillen, 42, who grew up in the area. During the school year, Gillen remembers eagerly looking out of the bus to see what Shadi had done with his garden. Then, around the holidays, he and his family would sometimes drive up the hill to see the neatly arranged Christmas scene.
“I remember people coming from all over to see it,” he said.
In 1984, Shadi told ABC News that it was all about bringing joy to his community.
“It inspires me when I see the people enjoying it, so I feel that maybe I’m doing some service to my community,” he said.
By the late '90s, Shadi was no longer able to set up his own Christmas display, and for the first time in almost half a century, his statues spent the holiday season in storage. He died in 2002, just before his 102nd birthday.
But thanks to Jane and her husband, Rich Bartke — also a former El Cerrito mayor — Shadi’s legacy lives on. After his death, the Bartkes facilitated the acquisition of the statues from his family with the help of Soroptimist International.
Local firefighters helped move the hundreds of aged pieces to an empty warehouse, which was offered to them as storage by a local lumber company. Moving them is no easy task. “It takes four people to carry one of those camels,” Jane Bartke explained.
The Boy Scouts were enlisted to help restore the figurines. Then, PG&E agreed to lease the hillside below their tangle of power lines. The display was ready for revival.
On a recent night, an ancestor of Shadi’s first blue star shone brightly over the rows of milk-carton houses and coffee-tin minarets. An angelic arrangement of “Silent Night” echoed, as families huddled close to take in Shadi’s display.
A young boy named Charlie Smith slips a donation into a box, something he does every year. His younger sister likes the camels, but his favorite is the star.
Volunteer docent Mae Ritz -- who’s also a former mayor of El Cerrito -- passes out candy canes and shares the story of the man and his creation with visitors.
"All if us work hard to make sure that this looks good," says Ritz. "It just makes you feel good to see it happen and it makes you proud of El Cerrito and what we’re doing."