ENCINITAS — Something special happens every holiday season at the corner of Willowspring Drive and Glen Arbor Drive.
From its start 25 years ago, Joanne Smith has had a prime view of the spectacle from her kitchen window. When December arrived, she started every morning by checking for its arrival.
As Christmas was drawing closer and closer, she began to get nervous. Did the mysterious do-gooders forget?
She hoped that the tradition would be carried on. She needed it to happen, this year in particular, as this would be her first Christmas alone.
Joanne and her husband Emery moved to Encinitas in 1980. Their only daughter was grown, so they moved from San Bernardino when Emery obtained a job as a station agent for Amtrak in Del Mar.
From their small home in Village Park, they have a view of the neighborhood park. They noticed a pine tree no bigger than three-feet tall was planted there a few years after they moved in.
One morning, shortly before Christmas, the Smiths awoke to find the tree’s branches covered with ornaments, garlands and other holiday décor.
They knew one of their neighbors had done it, but they weren’t sure whom. Just the same, the two were quick to walk over and add their own decorations to the festive site.
The holiday adornment of the small tree caught on. Every year afterwards, the neighbors came together with decorations from years past and new ones to add on.
The tree grew and so did the holiday garnishing. Neighbors soon adorned the tree with hearts for Valentines Day, red, white, and blue for Fourth of July, messages of thanks for Thanksgiving.
“It just makes you feel so good to know that people will come together to do this,” Joanne said. “Every year we looked forward to see what the neighbors would do.”
The pair kept checking on the tree from their kitchen window together, even through the recent decade when Emery’s dementia gradually advanced.
Joanne and Emery met when their best friends set them up on a blind date back where they grew up near Boston.
“We couldn’t stand each other at first,” Joanne recalled.
The two went to a hockey game, a sport that neither of them knew anything about.
She remembers that he wanted to get home early so he could be at work on time the next day.
“I told my mother that he would make someone a wonderful husband, but he bored me to death,” she said.
But they gave it another go with a second date, and suddenly they clicked. Emery became her wonderful husband when the couple married eight months later in 1956.
Inspired by their first date, Joanne and Emery remained true to the Boston Bruins throughout their 56 years of marriage. They traveled the world together and had one daughter.
Joanne said that for their family, “Christmas was always very big, even during the years when we didn’t have much.”
She always loved looking at the house lights and mangers displayed in nearby yards.
Emery loved their grand Christmas dinners, especially Joanne’s “Politician’s Dessert,” a chocolate pudding and cool whip concoction given its name “because it’s so rich.”
In Encinitas, the park tree became part of the Smiths’ holiday traditions. They always brought their grandchildren over to admire the work.
Joanne remembers going out with her husband last year to admire the tree for the last time together.
She and a caregiver brought her husband out in a wheelchair to the dazzling tree. They marveled at every glimmering piece of tinsel, the oddly cut snowflakes hand-made by local kids, and the wreaths that had been hung on the tree with care.
Emery was hardly talking then, but Joanne remembers him smiling.
“You could tell he was enjoying it,” she said.
Emery passed on Feb. 2.
Today the tree is over a dozen feet tall, but Joanne still calls it “the little tree.”
Just when Joanne started to think the neighbors had forgotten, over the past weekend some people came by to adorn the tree.
Thanks to them, every piney branch sparkles with red and green orbs, strands of beads, and fuzzy stockings.
“It’s like someone threw up or vomited Christmas decorations all over it,” Joanne said with a laugh.
On Wednesday morning, she walked around the tree, admiring each and every holiday piece and pointing out the ones she has hung over the years. She was sure to leave ornament hangers for anyone who wanted to hang more.
“It really lifted my spirits since this is my first Christmas alone,” she said. “The tree is absolutely glorious. It’s the most beautiful it’s ever been.”