When Don Lima first had the idea of displaying a nativity scene outside his mortuary on Willow Street during the 1950s, little did he know he would be creating the early stages of a San José Christmas tradition.
Lima’s display grew over the years and became a spectacle of Christmas that people would drive miles to see. Back in the 1950s, people could not just buy a giant snow globe to put in their lawn because Christmas decorations were not easily attainable. A lit-up nativity scene attracted viewers from all over the city to be dazzled.
“It grew to be too big and traffic jams became too large,” said Jason Minsky, executive director of Christmas in the Park. “They made the decision to donate the display to the city of San José. It went on the front lawn of City Hall for a couple of years until the city had issues with upkeep and decided to put it into storage.”
It was not until 1979 that the Chamber of Commerce decided the display was too good of a treasure to keep in storage.
“They moved display in to the park, formerly known as ‘Plaza Park,’” Minsky said. “It took up part of the park and was very small compared to what the are now.”
In 1980, Christmas in the Park, Inc. became a nonprofit organization that fundraised when necessary. A couple of years later, the event added a parade that would circle around the park. The parade made up of kids riding bicycles and families was so small they had to go around the park twice just to make it longer.
“Over the years the parade just grew and grew,” Minsky said. “The parade grew so much that volunteers couldn’t run it anymore. The city took it on and ran the holiday parade for many years.”
Three years ago, the city met a financial crisis and could no longer fund Christmas in the Park or the parade. The nonprofit groups supporting Christmas in the Park did not want to see the tradition fade so they decided to take control and manage the event. The city of San José and Christmas in the Park went into a three-year agreement.
“They also used to unveil Santa Claus from the Sainte Claire Hotel,” Minsky said. “Santa would be on roof the roof and then there would be a Santa at each floor in the windows. They would time it so Santa would appear on each floor and come down so it looked like he was magically flying down the floors.”
Nicole Spedding was born and raised in San José and said she has been going to Christmas in the Park since she was a kid.
“It’s always been one of my favorite parts of Christmas time,” Spedding said. “I usually go every year. Once, if not twice, with different groups of family and friends.
Spedding continues to go because she said it genuinely brings out the Christmas spirit.
“You leave Christmas in the Park really feeling the enjoyment of the holiday season,” Spedding said. “Watching all the younger kids’ reactions and seeing how much they enjoy it reminds me of how much I did at that age.”
“The volunteer effort put into making Christmas in the Park is unique,” Spedding said. “They spend a lot of time putting together a nice winter wonderland for the community and that is something to be appreciative of if you’re from San José since so many families go each year.”
People should go to Christmas in the Park this year because it is a great way to enjoy the holiday season with family and friends, Spedding said.
Volunteers from the community maintain the program. Greg Garcia, one of the volunteers, worked in construction for 33 years when he retired and was looking for ways to spend his free time. A year into his retirement, Garcia was approached by a volunteer from Christmas in the Park while at the gym, asking if he wanted to help out.
Garcia volunteers every Tuesday of the year by fixing and maintaining the displays. From mechanical elves to reindeer, Garcia ensures all the displays are working properly. As Garcia enters his ninth year of volunteering, he said it is enjoyable work because everyone gets along.
“Seeing how the displays put a smile on kids’ faces makes it worth doing,” Garcia said. “Some kids are not fortunate enough to get this stuff on Christmas so they’re able to come down and see this stuff.”
Garcia said he has heard rumors that this is one of the biggest Christmas displays on this side of the Mississippi River.
“People nowadays see Christmas as so commercialized,” Garcia said. “This brings the Christmas back into Christmas.”