San Francisco

How a Small Potted Tree Became One of San Francisco's Most Famous Holiday Displays

It’s almost hard to believe one of the Bay Area’s most outlandish holiday displays began with a meager potted tree — but alas some of the most enduring traditions sprout from humble beginnings.

Yet as thousands of people turn out year — taking in the 60-foot Norfolk Island Pine buried beneath lights and ornaments in the front yard of Tom Taylor and Jerome Goldstein, they are looking at a tree that began its life in a pot from Cost Plus in 1974.

“That little bucket, that was it,” said Taylor, the calm sprocket in a whirling dervish of holiday decorating which engulfed the entire yard of his and Goldstein’s home on a steep hill in San Francisco’s Dolores Heights.

These days the house and its ornaments, which have now claimed not only the tree but the roof, yard and driveway, are a holiday destination. The Tom and Jerry lights, as the long-time couple is known, even has its own Yelp page and was featured on the show Light Fights, which Goldstein said he was reluctant to participate in(they didn’t win).

“This is an act of love,” Goldstein said. “It is not an act of money, power or winning.”

If victory could be measured by utter devotion, the Tom and Jerry display would be hard to beat — swarms of its visitors grew up coming by the house over the last 31 years and the visitors include several generations.

“Growing with this tree means a lot,” said neighbor Hunter Padilla who dresses up as Santa’s elf during the run of the display. Yes, the display even has its own nightly Santa.

“That is what this tree is all about,” Goldstein said, “it’s about the people who love doing this, who do it year after year after year.”

And unlike your average handy-person who will hang a few lights and call it a day — the homeowners employ a crew of ten who labor full-time for up to six weeks using a small crane to get the house Christmas-ready.

“First time doing it was daunting,” said a worker named Benji who has labored on Goldstein and Taylor’s holiday display since 2002. “It’s doing like a Christmas tree at your house but times one thousand.”

The decorations include the tree with its multi-colored bulbs, large packages on the roof, two train sets, a pair of toy car tracks and a pair of massive Christmas stockings hung over the garage with care, inscribed with Tom and Jerry. Exactly how many decorations are involved is anyone’s guess.

“We might as well pick lottery numbers than try to count how many ornaments there are,” Benji said staring up at the tree.

It’s only slightly easier to tally all the years Taylor and Goldstein have been together — forty-six — married since 2013. Their relationship has lasted not only the test of time but the responsibility of hosting a massive Christmas display for over three decades.

“This is my 31st year,” Taylor said. “I’m not sure who’s the boss anymore, the tree or me.”

The couple said it hopes to continue the decorating tradition a few more years — then possibly find someone to take it over.

“You got a house?” Taylor half-joked to visitors showing up for the display’s inaugural evening this week — as Santa plunked down on a bench and began handing out candy canes.

As children bounded between the train sets and the spinning barbie dolls — warily eyeing Santa sitting beneath a cacophony of holiday lighting — Taylor and Goldstein sat on a bench watching the scene in a sort of eye of the storm.

The tree that started out in a bucket, stretched above the roof the house — an electric-looking star beaming above the neighborhood as if there to beckon three wise men and a few donkeys.

Goldstein allowed a cheshire-like grin. “The Christmas tree,” he said, “you just can’t argue with mom and apple pie.”

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