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Behind Fresno’s Biggest Christmas Lights Display, A Little-Known Tradition

Flickr user Lens Scratcher (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Rather than use a master switch or automated control, Christmas Tree Lane organizers prefer to turn the lights on and off manually, assigning the complicated task to different "lane keepers" each night of December.

The holidays are big here in the San Joaquin Valley. One of the most conspicuous examples is Christmas Tree Lane, two miles of lights and music that draw tens of thousands of visitors to central Fresno each year. Big as it is, though, it’s the little things that keep Christmas Tree lane running smoothly. In particular, this nightly ritual keeps the lights on.

Sarah Woolf and her family are really into living on Christmas Tree Lane. They’ve owned a house on this quaint, tree-lined boulevard for seven years, and each season, they decorate their front yard with some variant of Santa sitting and waving in an antique tractor or car. “This year is a Model A Speedster, which my dad has actually used for drag racing,” says Woolf.

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Sarah Woolf and her sons Robert, center, and Clark have been lane keepers at least one night each year for nearly a decade.

On walk nights, people like to actually get in and take pictures with Santa. “Sometimes Santa gets a little beat up, and so he needs some rebuilding after every walk night,” Woolf says, laughing.

One of their favorite Christmas Tree Lane traditions, though, begins about an hour before the festivities officially start. Woolf and her kids load into their family SUV, and her 15-year-old son Clark hops out at an electrical box up the street. “We are turning on the lights to Christmas Tree Lane,” says Clark.

It sounds simple: Just flip a switch or two, right? But the lights connect to over a dozen circuits in breakers stretching from Shaw Avenue all the way down to Shields. Powering them all amounts to a night-time scavenger hunt involving hidden keys, cobweb-enshrouded electrical boxes, and a dense set of instructions. The Woolfs assure me it’s not a chore. It’s something families like theirs actually look forward to every year. “It's fun, it’s festive, and it's nice being on the lane and hearing the music,” Woolf says.

Those in charge of the lights are called “lane keepers.” After turning the lane on, it’s also their job to power it down later that evening, and make sure volunteers show up at donation boxes. On this night, the Woolfs are the lane keepers, but it’ll be someone different tomorrow and the night after that. Many, like the Woolfs, make it a tradition every year.

The Woolfs begin around 5:15 p.m. They have 45 minutes to hit 12 stops and flip 16 switches. They’ve been doing this for close to a decade, but even with experience, and a step-by-step list of instructions, finding the switches can still be a puzzle.

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Lane keeper responsibilities involve finding stashed away keys and flipping 16 hidden electrical switches along the 2-mile stretch of Van Ness Boulevard.

Even this early, parked cars line the sides of Van Ness Boulevard waiting for the lights. Riders on a party bike—one of those trolley-looking pedi-cabs with a liquor bar—shout “thank you” when the big sign at the entrance lights up.

Keeping this all running smoothly is Lauri Leone. She’s coordinated the lane keepers since 2002, but has all the calendars and correspondences dating back to her predecessor in the 90s. “I have every year for forever,” she says, laughing.

Leone has kind of a big job, making sure every night is covered, and finding subs when keepers inevitably drop out at the last minute. Plus, new families need one-on-one tours to help them find their way. It seems like a clunky system, but Leone says this circuitous setup is what results when a street like this grows organically over the span of nearly a century. “In the original days, it was just one house that lit up, and another house that lit up, and then a few more houses that lit up,” she says, “and then it progressed to being the entire lane, and the trees.”

Despite the growth of smartphone home apps and electronic assistants, Leone says it’s unlikely the street would ever consolidate and be switched on and off remotely. For one thing, she says the lane’s piecemeal electrical structure is one reason the lane functions as efficiently as it does. Electrical problems do happen, but they disrupt only a block or two at a time, rather than the entire lane.

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Lane keeper coordinator Lauri Leone, standing in front of her Christmas Tree Lane home, says some families have signed up to be lane keepers since she took on the task in 2002.

Plus, she says, giving residents some responsibility keeps them invested. “Having the families involved in the way that we have keeps them part of the process,” she says, “instead of a process that's happening in our community—to us.”

The Woolfs certainly enjoy being part of the process, though there’s some disagreement about whether high-school sophomore Clark will continue after graduating. “It depends if I lived here,” he says. “You can't live here forever,” his mother Sarah Woolf reminds him.

Woolf, though, says she hopes to continue being a lane keeper even after her kids have left the house. 

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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