City Hall may boast an impressive Christmas tree, but our neighbors to the north in Altadena have the Rose City beat when it comes to holiday displays. Christmas Tree Lane and the colorful lights of the Balian Mansion have become beloved parts of area tradition. Near December 24th, Santa Rosa Avenue, as it is known the rest of the year, can become as congested as the 405 at rush hour.
Originally planned as a private drive for John Woodbury, the street was laid out in 1885 and planted with 140 small deodar seedlings. The deodar, originally from the western Himalayas, is known as devadāru in Sanskrit, which translates as “tree of God.” Woodbury was thought to have been the first to plant the tree in Southern California, returning from a trip to Italy in 1883 with seeds, which he planted on his brother Frederick’s Altadena ranch.
Deodar Circle in Pasadena and Deodara Drive in Altadena, which runs perpendicular to Santa Rosa, were both named for the tree.
Before its majestic light displays became an annual occurrence, Santa Rosa Avenue was used for several years as a course for an uphill car race, which began at the corner of Villa Street and Los Robles and went all the way to Altadena Drive. Early drivers who took part in the race achieved speeds of “from fifty to seventy miles an hour,” according to a 1906 L.A. Times profile of the race.
Christmas Tree Lane was inaugurated in 1920, after Fred C. Nash, a Pasadena businessman, proposed the idea. “Following out a plan proposed some weeks ago,” explains a December 4, 1920 L.A. Times article, ”the beautiful deodar trees on that street will be festooned with colored lights and trimmings, the Kiwanis Club having voted to share the expense with the city.”
Originally, only a small portion of the street was decorated, but as the street’s popularity soared among locals and out-of-towners alike, more lights were added. Today 10,000 lights adorn the deodars on the street each Christmas. The street itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Balian Mansion, at 1960 Mendocino Lane, offers stiff competition in the decorations department. For 55 years, the Balians’ displays, which often feature a full nativity scene, have also been an Altadena fixture.
Habib A. Balian was born in Syria in 1890 and emigrated to the United States in 1909, first working for a wool manufacturer and then starting a rug cleaning company in Brooklyn, New York. Eventually he relocated to Los Angeles, where he learned the ice cream trade and opened his own ice cream business, the “Alympia Ice Cream Company”—later renamed the Balian Ice Cream Company.
According to Michele Zack’s Altadena: Between Wilderness and City, the Balian Mansion was designed by the Postl architectural firm and built in 1922. Habib Balian acquired it sometime in the 1940s or 1950s.
The Balians were not without their quirks. They used to print the Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution on the wrapping of their specialty ice cream bars, and in 2004, they displayed a massive banner in support of George W. Bush that nearly put to shame their Christmas decorations.
Regardless of the Balians’ political beliefs, however, the Christmas lights at their mansion have been a hit for 55 years.
In more recent years, Upper Hastings Ranch has become a worthy competitor to Altadena. For years, its “Holiday Light Up” has inspired homeowners to pull out all the stops, with themed decorations. Various prizes for best display have been awarded since the tradition began in 1952, and Peanuts characters have been a recurring motif. (A “Snoopy Award” and “Snoopy Parade” feature in this year’s celebration.) It’s a real community happening: Neighbors pool money and resources, agree on themes, make work teams, and set timers so lights go off and on simultaneously. The display started on December 11 and will run until New Year’s Day.