Best Places to See Holiday Lights

Illuminate your holiday spirit

The custom of hanging strands of colored lightbulbs across the front of your house during the holiday season undoubtedly has ancient origins. Our prehistoric ancestors probably lit big fires in front of their caves on the longest nights of the year, and the Romans made bonfires to mark the winter solstice. The European tradition of the lit Christmas tree dates back at least to the sixteenth century, and the first electric tree lights went up a mere three years after Thomas Edison burned his first filament. Excess is an integral part of American Christmas festivities, and in almost any city you can find entire streets on which every homeowner tries to outdo his or her neighbors with elaborate lighting displays and decorations. (The all-time champion, by all accounts, was Jennings Osborne of Arkansas, who decorated his home with three million lights every Christmas until the state Supreme Court ruled the display a “public nuisance”; he donated the lights to Walt Disney World, which accepted them gratefully.)

The East Bay has its share of brightly lit streets. One of the longest-running of these is Thompson Avenue in Alameda. Some of its Yuletide displays are quite elegant, featuring delicate strands of white bulbs gracefully decorating roof lines and window frames. Others are gaudy, with multiple rainbow-hued strings of blinking lights. A number of homeowners have built or purchased elaborate cutouts depicting Santa Claus or religious themes.

For pure spectacle, you can’t beat either the Mormon Temple or the Oakland Zoo. The Latter-Day Saints hang thousands of lights in the tall palm trees that border the huge courtyard leading to the gilded steeple, which is also illuminated, and the twinkling bulbs sparkle in the long reflecting pool that runs down the center of the courtyard. The zoo’s “ZooLights” tradition began in 1998, and has become a popular annual fund-raiser. Not surprisingly, most of its illuminated displays have animal themes, and some are animated as well. It keeps getting bigger and better — last year some 90,000 bulbs were strung out along the zoo’s pathways, with hourly light shows in the big meadow.

The neighborhood just to the west of Mills College dresses itself up for Christmas. The area’s most famous decorated block, Picardy Drive, runs between Seminary and 55th avenues. Even on a summer day, Picardy is a fun street to explore — the homes are all built in a half-timbered style, meant to resemble houses in Elizabethan England. Many have rounded towers, dovecotes, arched windows, and other eccentric features, and when they’re lit up — as practically every house here is at Christmas — Picardy manages to be both quaint and dramatic at the same time. (By the way, Picardy and the other streets around here are much better viewed on foot than from a car, and it’s well worth bundling up so you can catch all the details.)

Head a couple of blocks north to Millsbrae Street, a modest two blocks of small, tidy homes off MacArthur Boulevard between Seminary and 58th avenues. Millsbrae has only been doing the Christmas-light thing for a few years, but it’s getting better and better. A veritable electric blaze radiates from houses, pathways, bushes, garages, trees, and any other place where you can attach a light, and every year Santa’s reindeer seem to be landing on more roofs or grazing in more front yards. A couple of years ago, the displays on 58th began to get increasingly elaborate as well.

If you can manage it, head for Millsbrae on Christmas Eve. The whole street is alive with people and music. One year, Santa himself was handing out lollipops from the back of a pickup truck.

Bill O’Brien

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