San Francisco revives 1940s fire station decorating contest

The holiday tradition last seen 70 years ago has made a comeback this year, with firehouses competing to win money for charity

Peter Hartlaub
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Hoping to brighten an increasingly grim holiday season, San Francisco firefighters will revive a tradition last seen during the Harry S. Truman administration: a city firehouse-decorating contest with prize money going to charity.

From 1948-1950, the San Francisco Fire Department and other city agencies came together to transform fire stations into winter wonderlands, with holiday themes, lights and in at least one case live animals.

After the contest was highlighted in a San Francisco Chronicle Our SF history column last week, fire officials decided early this week to restart the tradition, with a contest, judging and winners announced before Christmas.

San Francisco Fire Lt. Jonathan Baxter said firefighters typically get closer to their communities during the holidays. With the department's annual toy drive shifted online, and other in-person events canceled for safety reasons, the contest will be a way to show civic pride and unity.

"We want to do something that's going to bring as much of that back as possible, while still adhering to the protective measures that are in place for COVID-19," Baxter said. "The community wants or needs this as much as I think our firefighters do in San Francisco."

Decorating is voluntary. Participating stations will finish their decorations between Dec. 17-20, with each of the department's 44 stations plus three at the San Francisco International Airport invited to participate. Decorated stations will be presented on as a Total SF project, with a winner announced after the Dec. 21 final judging.

Judges include the San Francisco Fire Credit Union, Mission High School's Fire and EMS students and the department's Los Bomberos de San Francisco employee group. Adam Ferrara, a comedian who co-starred on TV's "Rescue Me," will be the grand judge. The credit union is supplying the top prizes of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, which will go to charities of the winning stations' choice.

Even before the column ran, Baxter said the department had received inquiries about holiday lights in 2020, because "we need it now more than ever." While the official contest ended in 1950, most San Francisco fire stations have decorated informally in recent years.

The contest started in 1948, when the city was experiencing post-war growth and community bonding. By 1950, The Chronicle, Muni and other city agencies were involved, providing maps of the decorated firehouses and tours for children who lived in low-income areas of the city. Stations featured props, music and in one case live animals, given reprieve from a local slaughterhouse for a manger scene. Another station raided broken mannequins from local department stores to create faux carolers.

But the contest ended bitterly, with firefighters voting not to revive it after a city-wide measure for cost-of-living raises was voted down. The original contest inspired other firehouse decoration traditions, including in Oakland and Vallejo.

Jack McCloskey, a former fire captain who co-founded the St. Francis Hook & Ladder historical society, witnessed the contest as a child. He remembers his father, also an SFFD firefighter, giving nuns from St. Cecilia Catholic Church a tour of the holiday stations in the family's 1937 Studebaker.

"I did not think we'd see it again," McCloskey said. "It's a tradition that represents spirit and everything that's good for the spirit of the city."


Station 18, taking pride in their station and bringing some holiday spirit to their neighborhood! The Dept is going to...

Posted by San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 on Tuesday, December 8, 2020

A shelter-in-place order was enacted state-wide on Monday morning. While some holiday traditions are modified — the Macy's window dogs and cats went virtual — and others canceled, there hasn't been much room for new traditions. Fire officials hope the end of a 70-year hiatus for the tradition will be as welcome in 2020 as it was in 1950.

Baxter said San Franciscans are encouraged to visit their local stations at a distance, as the current stay-at-home order permits, and view the rest of the stations on social media and in The Chronicle, where images of decorated stations will be posted as the contest winds down.

"Our only goal is to bring smiles to the faces of both our firefighters and our communities and raise the cheer and the spirits ... because everything that 2020 has brought to us has been relatively a downer," he said. "We definitely want a positive thing to end the year with."


(c)2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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