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Holiday Lights Event in the Presidio.
Tree lighting in 2014. Photo by Charity Vargas.

Nov 28, 2023

A Brief History of Holiday Traditions in the Presidio

Learn how the holiday season was celebrated through the decades.


Each year on the first Friday of December, we string colorful lights on a beautiful tree in the Presidio and it stays lit throughout the month of December. This tradition dates back to 1957. While different trees in different locations have been used over time, since 1991 the Norfolk Island pine at the corner of Funston Street and Lincoln Boulevard has been the Presidio’s official holiday tree. Here’s a look at some other Presidio holiday traditions.

Black and white photo of 16th Infantry having Christmas Dinner in 1913.
Christmas Dinner. December 25, 1913. Image by C. Tucker Beckett, courtesy of Sutro Library.

For as long as there’s been an U.S. Army, it has tried its hardest to serve soldiers enormous, mouth-watering feasts on Christmas Day. In 1913, it stayed true to this tradition by providing the members of the 16th Infantry Regiment in the Presidio with nearly two pounds of turkey each, along with copious amounts of cranberry sauce and plum pudding. Fortunately, no military duties were expected of them for the rest of the day.

Black and white image of Santa Clause facing group of children in 1952.
Santa Claus at the Presidio Service Club, December 20, 1952. Image courtesy GGNRA Park Archives.

The Presidio’s children weren’t forgotten during the holidays. For many decades after World War II, one annual holiday tradition was for the Army to screen a movie and throw a party for children at the Presidio Theatre. In 1952, the children went to the Presidio Service Club (now the Golden Gate Club) after the show to get their gifts from Santa. He arrived by helicopter (instead of by his usual fire engine), landing at the baseball diamond that used to be located right across the street from the theatre.

Black and white photo with boy looking at toys, December 4, 1962.
Donald Smith and his son Patrick admire the Presidio’s Toyland, December 4, 1962. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

To help parents with their holiday shopping, for many years the Presidio’s Post Exchange set up “Toyland,” offering a range of toys for all ages at discounted prices as well as an array of cards and decorations. Some years Toyland opened as early as September for those looking to beat the last-minute holiday rush.

Black and white photo of the Presidio Fire Station, December 21, 1950.
Presidio Fire Station, December 21, 1950. Image Courtesy San Francisco Public Library.

In 1948, fire companies around San Francisco began an annual competition to see who could decorate their station the best. The Presidio Fire Station continues this tradition today.

Black and white photo of military personal, patients, and nurses at Letterman General Hospital, Ward D, December 1900.
Letterman General Hospital, Ward D, December 1900.

Every year, there were efforts to brighten the spirits of patients at Letterman General Hospital by providing festive decorations and planning visits from big Hollywood stars, including Bob Hope, Joan Crawford, and Ann Baxter. Patients experienced an outpouring of holiday cheer through the generosity of people from around the Bay Area and beyond. One enduring tradition that began around 1950 was the Sixth Army Headquarters Company’s “Operation Jingle Bells,” an effort to raise money to bring the mother or another close relative of a Letterman patient to the Presidio for a visit.

Aerial view of the tree and a newspaper article about it circa 1957.
The Presidio’s first holiday tree. Circa 1957.

And back to that tree! Before the current Norfolk Island pine at Funston Street and Lincoln Boulevard, many different trees in the park were lit for the holidays over the years. But the first tree lighting happened in 1957 when Post Commander Colonel Charles G. Rau relocated a 30-foot-tall Monterey cypress from a spot next to the Fort Winfield Scott Chapel to a more central location at the south end of the Main Parade Lawn. This tree was then used in the Presidio’s first annual outdoor tree lighting on December 20, 1957, and a tree tradition was born.