History of the Willow Glen Yard Trees

This is an article from the 2004 Willow Glen Resident. We republished it in case the Mercury ever archived it in a way that makes it unavailable, and they did so we’re glad we did. 

A Christmas Tale: Family that started the tree tradition

By Meghan O’Hare

During his lifetime, Frank Badagliacca illuminated Willow Glen, and not just with the twinkle in his eye or his quickness with a joke. Badagliacca was the originator of the decorated trees that have become a holiday tradition on the front lawns of neighborhood homes.

This year Badagliacca won’t see that magic light up streets from Camino Ramon to Crescent Drive. Badagliacca died on Nov. 22. But his legacy will continue as long as there are front yard trees decorating Willow Glen homes.

A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, Badagliacca was born and raised in “Goosetown.” His family owned a walnut processing plant on Willow Street called Willow Nut House. But at an early age, he selected the place where he would one day own a house and raise a family—a street called Camino Ramon. In 1954, Badagliacca and his wife, Dolores, purchased a home on the street, and he would remain there until he died.

“He always wanted to live on this street,” Dolores said. “He always loved this street and neighborhood, and he wanted to do something for the residents, especially at Christmas.”

A couple blocks over on Cherry Street, Badagliacca noticed that residents decorated their yards with potted trees every Christmas season. Although the intent was genuine, the seasonal winds produced a decidedly unfestive result—those trees would blow over. Wanting to find a new and improved way to adorn his own neighborhood, Badagliacca had an idea that would revolutionize Christmas in Willow Glen.

“Frank was working part time in construction at the time,” Dolores said. “He just thought, ‘What if we put rebar in the ground and brace the trees to the ground?’ Everyone [on the street] went for the idea.”

And thus, the holiday tree tradition as it is known today was born. But, like most traditions, the holiday trees come complete with a set of rituals that have barely changed over the last 48 Christmases.

First, Badagliacca, the street captain, would go to the Christmas tree lot and handpick 27 Charlie Brown trees for each of the homes on his block.

“Dad was a fanatic about having the trees be perfect,” his daughter, Lori Badagliacca Rodriguez, remembers.

However, Badagliacca would often select the scrawnier trees for himself—not that his neighbors would know from looking at the stately Douglas firs that graced his lawn. A “tree doctor” of sorts, he would perform cosmetic surgery on the sickly trees, grafting limbs onto them to make them full and healthy-looking.

“We would say, ‘Dad, you aren’t going to take that tree, are you?'” Rodriguez said. “He would go away with the tree, and we would hear the sound of drilling. All of a sudden, he would come back with a beautiful tree, and we would say, ‘Where did you get that one?’ He could take a bare-sided Charlie Brown tree and turn it into something beautiful.”

After selecting and distributing the firs to his neighbors, Badagliacca and the residents of Camino Ramon had a system for creating a uniform line of decorated trees. They staked the rebar into the ground exactly 10 feet from the sidewalk, and attached the trees to the rebar. At a set time, usually at sundown, the neighbors would light the trees for the first time in the season.

Although Badagliacca brainstormed the mechanics of the holiday trees, Dolores was the one who came up with their crowning glory—the white light that adorns the top of each tree. It was an innovative touch that has persisted to this day.

“You drive around, and everyone still has it,” she said.

Rooted in Time

At first, the Badagliaccas recall, the Christmas trees were pretty much contained to three streets—Camino Ramon, Camino Pablo and Cherry Street. The neighborhoods even held an informal competition to see who could get the most participation.

And nearly all the houses participated from the beginning, Dolores and Lori say. But there was one holiday season when the lights went out in Willow Glen. The year was 1976. Due to an energy shortage, residents abstained from decorating their trees and homes with the traditional strands of lights. Dolores and Lori insist that was the only Christmas in which a lighted tree did not decorate their yard.

And then there was the year that the Grinch quite literally stole the Badagliaccas’ Christmas. In the late ’70s, vandals made off with the Christmas lights on Camino Ramon, putting a damper on the holiday spirit. But after a newspaper article was written about the theft, people from across the city donated lights to the neighborhood, restoring the residents’ Christmas cheer.

Because the tree tradition had yet to spread throughout the area, the three streets experienced a rather unexpected side effect to their winter festivities—celebrity status. Lori and Dolores remember the days when the street was clogged with spectators, some with cameras, driving through the neighborhood to get their seasonal fix.

Sometime around the mid-1980s, Lori began to notice other parts of Willow Glen acquiring trees of their own. Rather than seeing the novice streets as competition, she said she was glad to see others adopting the tradition as their own.

“It enforced the thought that it would last,” she said.

It was also around this time that she was attempting—with minimal success—to initiate the tradition in Campbell, where she moved in 1981. Her sister, Ann Bywater, has also continued the annual affair in Alameda.

“People would say to me, ‘Why do you have a tree in front of your house?'” Rodriguez said, laughing. “But it’s our way of being a part of the street when we couldn’t.”

In 1988, Rodriguez returned to the roost, and purchased a house across the street from her childhood home. She said she moved back onto Camino Ramon purposely so she could participate in the tradition her father began.

And, she insists she isn’t the only person who was inspired by the trees to move to the street.

“I hear so many people comment that they moved here for the trees,” Rodriguez said.

In fact, new neighbors get more than a home when they move to Camino Ramon; they get their very own piece of rebar, as well. Dolores still possesses the rebar her husband used to anchor his first tree.

But even beyond Camino Ramon, residents caught on to the dendronmania. Victor and Florence Bertoldo, who live on Ellen Avenue, were inspired to bring the tree tradition to their own corner of Willow Glen, and have been participating for about 10 years. Victor, who is 80, is in charge of ordering and distributing the trees for his street.

“It gets the neighborhood into the Christmas spirit,” Florence notes.

And the Bertoldos’ efforts have drawn admirers to their section of Willow Glen as well.

“We get a lot of people going by to see the trees and decorations,” Victor said. “Last year we even saw a tour bus go by.”

But the Bertoldos’ decorative flourishes don’t stop with the tree. Each year, the couple transforms their home into a winter wonderland. Lighted candy canes line the greenery on their front yard, strands of lights grace their house, and a shining star of Bethlehem perches on their roof.

Dolores and Rodriguez have noticed an evolution of sorts in Willow Glen during the holiday season.

“When it first started, it was just trees,” Dolores said. “As the years have gone on, the decorations have become more fabulous.”

Even the trees have begun to develop more character over time Rodriguez notes. She appreciates the individual approaches different households take to decorating their trees. Some use CDs as ornaments. A few have adopted a patriotic, red-white-and-blue theme.

The Badagliacca family has its own unique way to adorn a simple Douglas fir, as well—Styrofoam balls.

“It’s like filler,” Rodriguez said. “The light hits the balls, and it fills in the blanks. Dad started that.”

But one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the neighborly spirit that decorating the trees inspires.

“It’s a ball,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes we just see the neighbors in the summer when it’s warm and everyone is on their porches, or in winter when we are decorating the trees It’s a winter activity that gets the neighbors outside together and talking, instead of hibernating in their houses.”

So strong is the pull of the tree tradition that even when Badagliacca was ill during the last couple of years, he still gathered with his neighbors to participate in the event he helped create.

“Last year, he came out and sat in a plastic lawn chair while we decorated the trees,” Dolores said. “He was still directing how the lights should be placed.”

And, as the family faces its first Christmas without it’s the man who started it all, the trees that have become an almost ubiquitous presence in wintertime Willow Glen have become a bittersweet reminder of Badagliacca’s life and recent passing.

“Last night, I looked down the streets while I was going to the store, and saw the trees already lit up,” Dolores said. “I got teary-eyed. That’s what he started. That’s his legacy.”

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