Story c/o Nathan Masters ~KCET.org
Woodbury ranch superintendent Thomas Hoag had no idea the three-foot seedlings he was planting would someday become a major Yuletide attraction. It was 1885, and Hoag and his Chinese American ranch hands were building a driveway that climbed a steady grade from the Pasadena city limit up to the ranch house of Altadena founders Frederick and John Woodbury. Sweating under the June sun, Hoag and his workers dug ditches on each side of the drive and lined them with granite stones transported by mule from nearby Rubio Canyon. Behind the ditches they planted roughly 150 young deodar cedars, which Hoag had grown from seed in the Woodburys’ greenhouse over the previous two years.
Thirty-five years later, in 1920, the Woodburys’ driveway had become Santa Rosa Avenue, the ranch had evolved into now-suburban Altadena, and the fragile seedlings had matured into robust cedar trees. Their conical shape and low-slung branches inspired Pasadena merchant Fred Nash to transform the Himalayan conifers into Christmas trees. Enlisting the aid of the Pasadena Kiwanis Club, Nash festooned the trees with red, white, blue, and green electric lights, and an annual holiday tradition was born.
In Christmas Tree Lane’s early years, pedestrians strolled in the soft glow of 10,000 electric bulbs. But it soon became an attraction to be seen from the seat of a car, as an endless nighttime procession of automobiles, their headlights dark, crawled up the one-mile stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue. In 1935, the display drew more than 20,000 people on a single Christmas evening. The glittering trees fell outside Pasadena’s corporate limits, but for several decades Crown City workers strung the lights while Southern California Edison provided the electricity for free.
In 1930, Hoag returned for the attraction’s annual dedication ceremony. The former ranch foreman might have felt some ambivalence about using a tree considered divine among Hindus as a decoration for a Christian holiday. Hoag recalled hearing Frederick Woodbury remark, he told the Los Angeles Times, that “the seeds were from a heathen land, but the California sun would civilize them if anything could.” Pulling a switch that Christmas Eve, the 79-year-old Hoag closed an electric circuit and illuminated the trees he’d once planted to shade a rural ranch road.