The annual lighting of the city’s holiday tree is a Benicia tradition not to be missed, even if it’s cold, windy and raining outside. Regardless of the weather, scores of revelers gather at the First Street waterfront to watch as the switch is turned and the large tree twinkles and glows with thousands of lights. The tree lighting ceremony dates back decades with different trees and different locations around the downtown, though the intent to herald in the season remains the same.

This year, there will be one key difference. The official holiday tree is new and slightly different. The former was replaced over the summer with a variety that can withstand the waterfront’s windy conditions better, said Rick Knight, city superintendent of parks & building maintenance. A few years ago, the tree nearly fell over in a storm. The city pulled it back and secured it with cables, but it never fully recovered and drought conditions weakened it more, Knight said. The new tree is a 20-foot Carolina Sapphire Cypress, a native to California that the city purchased for $4,500 at a nursery in Gilroy. “We’re excited we were able to find a tree this size and as healthy as it is. We also installed a new irrigation system and we have some ventilating tubes to help with the brackish water,” Knight said.

For more than two decades, the previous evergreen tree was a faithful presence. A community member gave it to the city when lower First Street was raised and underwent improvements. Years ago, the holiday tree was in a portion of Eunice Jensen Park that now holds the Benicia Public Library. Then a tree in City Park held the honors. Knight said the aim was that people would gather at the top of the street and then walk down and visit the shops, though sometimes people would go home after the tree was lit. These days, the tree lighting ceremony at the waterfront serves as a lure to draw people down First Street and participate in the evening’s events. “We want them to walk downtown and enjoy the holiday atmosphere,” he said.Enjoyment is the key, and the city also wants all of the community to participate in festivities regardless of their background. Originally called the city’s “Christmas tree” the name was changed to “holiday tree” to encourage inclusion of all traditions. Many cities have taken similar steps as a way to assure everyone is welcome, and also because the December holiday season marks more than the Christmas holiday. The month also includes Hanukkah, Kwanza, the Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Winter Solstice, among others.

Jennifer Payne

Benicia Promenade with palm trees lit up

Following the tree lighting, the Holiday Open House, sponsored by the city and Benicia Main Street, unfolds as First Street merchants stay open late for shopping and offer cookies and hot cider. This year’s evening festivities start at 6pm on Friday, Dec. 2, with the tree lighting at 6:30pm. Carolers dressed in period costume and horse-drawn carriage rides add to the festivities. The historic Benicia State Capitol is also lit up, decorated and open for tour while Benicia High School band plays on the lawn. This year, the adjacent Fischer Hanlon House will be decorated but not open to the public.

Seasonal merriment can be found all month with elaborate holiday yard displays throughout town and other merriment. A perennial favorite is the Christmas Parade & Holiday Market that starts 10 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 10. A parade of local marching bands and dancers launches at First and D streets and goes to H Street. A holiday market follows between B and D streets. On that day, Santa Claus will be at the Fischer Hanlon House to take children’s wishes from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Next door at the State Capitol, docents will help people make Victorian tree ornaments. Throughout the month, First Street merchants do elaborate storefront displays, and people can be spotted bustling around looking for gifts or meeting friends and loved ones at cafes and restaurants. As evening falls, the trees light up and are so pretty to look at. “It’s very magical on First Street in December,” said Nancy Martinez, Benicia Main Street executive director.

Here are some other holiday events taking place in Benicia this month:

  • The Celtic duo “Men of Worth” perform a special holiday concert 8 p.m., Dec. 3 at the Benicia Historical Museum, 2060 Camel Road in the Benicia Industrial Park. Tickets are available at the museum, Bookshop Benicia, or
  • A Christmas Tree Lot community fundraiser takes place 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through December 23 at the Benicia Historical Museum, 2060 Camel Road. Proceeds benefit the museum and Genesis House.