It wasn’t so long ago that Benicia ushered in the holiday season with ten or so merchants staying open late, and folks walking up and down First Street sidewalks. Fast-forward nearly 40 years: it’s a big contrast to today’s huge, festive crowds. First Street becomes a pedestrian-only event, as the streets fill with wagon rides at the waterfront and strolling carolers in costume, plus the not-to-be-missed tree lighting ceremony. The annual event gets people in the mood for the holiday season. This year’s Benicia Holiday Open House unfolds 6-9pm on Friday, Dec. 1. Organized by First Street merchants and the Benicia Main Street Program, the evening is full of small town charm. “It’s a big hit,” said Nancy Martinez, Benicia Main Street executive director. “You see so many people you don’t see throughout the year, and you do get a lot of new people, too. It’s such great exposure for people who have recently moved to Benicia, and for those who may want to move to here,” she said. Since First Street is closed to traffic, people visit businesses bright with lights, music and holiday cheer. At the waterfront, revelers circle the large fir tree in the roundabout to listen to The Mistletones and watch as the holiday lights are turned on, and the tree twinkles brightly in the dark. Once again this year, both the historic Benicia State Capitol and adjacent Fischer Hanlon House will be open for visits.

While the annual holiday event has expanded, it stays true its mission of drawing people into stores to start their holiday shopping. Some people discover shops they’ve never had a chance to go into; often finding treasures or pledging to return later, Martinez said. The event began when a dozen or so First Street merchants picked the first Friday evening of December to stay open late. They played seasonal music and served refreshments as folks strolled in the brisk, late-Fall weather. The late Jack Tanner, of Tanner’s Candles and Antiques, a long-time merchant, played Santa Claus. Former First Street merchant Donna Ernst recalls that the annual event got underway in either 1980 or 1981. Merchants also organized a holiday parade, to be held later in the month.

Not until the Benicia Main Street Program set up shop in 1987 did the Holiday Open House evolve into the extravaganza it is today. Former Main Street executive director Patti Baron said a chief aim was to expand and promote it. One big change involved moving the tree lighting ceremony from City Park to the waterfront, as a way to encourage people to walk down the street and visit shops. Main Street also brought in live music and wagon rides. Over the years, different things were tried for fun, such as filling the State Capitol lawn with manufactured snow for the kids to play in, she said. Today the open house is always held the first Friday of December and it’s something people look forward to, to herald in the holiday season with a festive evening downtown. “It’s a long-time tradition and it’s been very well-supported. It’s just packed, and people come from all over to enjoy the atmosphere,” Baron said.

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

  • Christmas Parade & Holiday Market, 10am-3pm, Saturday, Dec. 9. The parade starts at First and D streets and features children, local marching bands and dancers, plus Santa and Mrs. Claus. The holiday market unfolds after the parade between B and D Streets.
  • Victorian Holiday Ornament Craft Workshop at the Benicia State Capitol, 10am-3pm, Saturday, Dec. 9. Nominal fee. Children can visit St. Nicholas (Victorian Santa) at the adjacent Fischer Hanlon House. Bring your own camera, refreshments served.
  • Christmas Tree Lot community fundraiser daily through Dec. 22 at the Benicia Historical Museum, 2060 Camel Road. Proceeds benefit the museum and Genesis House.
  • Teddy Bear Tea Party held Dec. 2-3 at the Camellia Tea Room. Bring a teddy bear and join in the fun at the First Street restaurant. Reservations are required; call 707-746-5293.