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Family Adventures Close to Home:
We're Home for the Holidays
By Rosie Ruley Atkins
Miles noticed it before I did. I was pushing his stroller up the steepest part of 21st Street, between Church and Sanchez, when he started giggling and twisting his body in an attempt to escape the confines of the stroller. Not without some effort, I lifted my sweaty head to see the spectacle of Tom Taylor and Jerry Goldstein's house.
It was 1997 and we were spending our first Christmas in San Francisco, having moved here from the East Coast a few months earlier. Miles didn't seem to mind that we were far away from his aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. He was only 2, so Christmas to him was all new. Park him in front of a decorated tree or let him watch the train circle the track in the window of Tuggey's and he was happy .
My husband and I were a different story. We had spontaneously moved back to the city where we'd lived earlier in the decade, as part of the dot-com migration. We were thrilled to be back, but with each call from our families we were beginning to wonder if we'd done the right thing. Three thousand miles feels like twice that distance when your mother calls to tell you that the December scallops coming out of the harbor in your hometown are the best in years, or when your best friend calls to laugh about her anarchist-inspired additions to the decorations at Rockefeller Center.
I was on the verge of calling United to book some megabucks tickets for a five-day trip home. But the Miracle on 21st Street changed everything.
Giant, toy-stuffed stockings belonging to Tom and Jerry spilled over the balcony of the little white Victorian. A 30-foot-tall evergreen was covered in colorful, mostly handmade decorations that appeared to be perfectly in scale with the tree. Colorfully wrapped "presents" the size of park benches tumbled toward the sidewalk from underneath the tree.
I assumed the entire thing was a movie set. Miles was beside himself. He wiggled out of the stroller and scrambled onto the mountain of enormous presents.
Peeking into the garage of the home, I spotted even more treasures that would soon be added to the scene. A man emerged, a hammer in one hand, 20-foot-long velvet ribbon in the other, and introduced himself. I tried to pull Miles down from the present pile, but Tom smiled.
"It's okay," he said. "My partner and I do this for the kids."
"It's not a movie set?" I asked.
"No," said Tom as he made a few adjustments to the lights on the tree. "It's just our way of celebrating. We wanted to do something to give back to the community."
Later that week, we created what would become our first San Francisco family holiday tradition--our evening stroll over to what Miles had dubbed "Santa's House."
I'm a sucker for bold expressions of holiday cheer, but Tom and Jerry's display sparkling in the night with the Bay in the background had a huge impact on me.
There was Santa, standing beneath the glittering tree, handing out candy canes to everyone, posing for pictures, waving to passing cars. Some friends happened by and introduced us to neighbors who became close friends. Adults chatted on the sidewalk while kids ranged over the giant gifts and tugged on the arms of an enormous stuffed panda. Cheerful people snapped photos and sipped glasses of wine and cups of coffee. Families who lived busy lives slowed down and connected with one another.
The uniquely San Francisco mix of acceptance and over-the-top razzle-dazzle was instantly reassuring. In the midst of my holiday blues, Tom and Jerry's amazing act made me know I was home.
Since then, we've discovered a few other San Francisco-bound traditions.
For transplanted East Coasters (and rain-weary San Franciscans, for that matter), there's nothing that feels better than one of those sunny December days when you can hit the beach in a T-shirt and wiggle your bare toes in the sand. In the last seven years, not a single December has passed without a day at Ocean Beach, building castles, playing in the waves, watching the crazy kite fliers trace patterns across the sky. And rocks--pink-veined, heart-shaped, sculpted smooth by years in the Pacific--make great gifts for people who have everything.
Next on our list is a trip to Golden Gate Fields in Albany. What better way to say "California Christmas" than to spend an afternoon at the racetrack gambling with the entire family? If you listen closely, you might notice that the pounding of the thoroughbreds' hooves strongly resembles the backbeat of "Little Drummer Boy."
We also make an annual shopping trip to the Mission, where we generally spend more time going in an out of our favorite panderias than we do selecting gifts. Licorice-flavored biscochitos, bunny-shaped sweet rolls, sugary conchas, and rosca de reyes are an important part of the holiday experience. When we're full, we poke around the variety stores and markets in the neighborhood. These shops are perfect for kid-sized budgets and are refreshingly free of Gap turtlenecks and pleas to add more credit cards to your wallet.
Finally, Christmas Eve always finds us at the Castro Theater, where the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus can be counted on to strike just the right balance between nostalgia and irreverence. Miles loves the sing-along at the end almost as much as he likes seeing his parents tear up during "White Christmas"--something we only allow ourselves to do within the confines of that beautiful old movie theater.
Racetracks, beach days, and gay men's choruses may not exactly square with our images of Christmases past, but the wonderful thing about San Francisco is that here we can reinvent anything and make it, if not better, then just right for us.
My sister Cate called the other day to share several enticing stories about our beautiful and amazing 9-week-old twin nieces whom I've not yet met. She finished with the inevitable question: "You're coming home to Nantucket for Christmas this year, aren't you?"
I paused. I can feel those babies in my arms. I can smell their baby smells and hear their baby squeals.
"We'll be there on the 26th," I told her.
A SAN FRANCISCO SLEIGH RIDE
* Tom Taylor and Jerry Goldstein's home is on 21st Street between Church and Sanchez. Instead of driving by the tree, do their kind neighbors a favor and walk over. Also, in the evenings try to keep your voices down. That way, you can indulge in Santa's candy canes guilt-free.
* The racing season at Golden Gate Fields in Albany runs through January. Go to www.goldengatefields.com or call 510-559-7300 for race times.
* It's hard to find a bad pastry in the Mission, but our favorites come from La Victoria at 2937 24th Street.
* Find out about "Home for the Holidays" with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus at www.sfgmc.org or call 415-865-3650.