Nichols moved back to the family home on Bryant Street near Santa Rita Avenue after her parents died, but the neighborhood was as black and silent as ever, she said.
So three years ago she started a new neighborhood tradition.
With neighbors Paula Rantz and Margaret Lawrence, Nichols knocked on doors to invite neighbors to edge their street with small, lit Christmas trees, expanding on a tradition that began in 1940 with the now-famous Christmas Tree Lane in the adjacent Embarcadero Oaks neighborhood.
The first year, they had 18 trees; the second year, 78. This year, there are more than 160, and the streets are glowing with lights.
"Now it's come alive," she said.
The transformation of her neighborhood has spread beyond the Christmas season. Taking the courageous step of knocking on strangers' doors to ask them to host holiday trees and lights has opened the community to new relationships.
"My neighbors used to never talk to each other. We didn't know each other. There was no camaraderie," she recalled. "Last year, we knocked on a man's door and he said, 'I've lived here 25 years and I've never spoken to any neighbors.' At first, he was taken aback, but then he said, 'Sure,' he would take some trees," Nichols said.
A block party on Santa Rita became the impetus for Nichols' inspiration, she said. The newly formed Old Palo Alto Neighborhood Association started in 2011 by Nadia Naik and Camelia Sutorius got people talking. A series of block parties brought people out from behind their closed doors.
"We found that people were really friendly and we got to know each other," Nichols said.
She ordered the same-sized trees from the Palo Alto High School Christmas tree lot, and lights from Hassett ACE Hardware. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the trees were hand-delivered to all of the neighbors who had agreed to sign on.
"We had a party and delivered them with wheelbarrows and Christmas bells," she said.
Now people put up the lights themselves. Many are decorating their homes where no lights shone before, she said.
Sutorius said the transformation is amazing.
"What joy it brings. I think it has brought a lot of love. It extends beyond Christmas. We've grown quite a bit through the block parties, as we've grown together, and that's what's allowed this to happen," Sutorius said. "Debbie has been building this neighborhood feel. We connect on something in December, and when we see someone on the sidewalk, now we stop and talk. It really builds community."
The neighborhood of trees is a nod to the late Judge Edward Hardy, in whose home the idea for "Christmas Fairyland Lane" was created by four friends playing bridge in 1940, Nichols said. Now called Christmas Tree Lane on Fulton Street near Embarcadero Road, the idea came from "a common desire to promote Christmas joy throughout the holidays, particularly for the children of the 1700 and 1800 blocks on Fulton Street, and to foster a similar spirit throughout the community and Palo Alto," according to the original committee proclamation.
"We're not trying to be Christmas Tree Lane," Nichols insisted.
But the spirit of good cheer is spreading. The trees with two strands of colored lights and a white light on top are popping up on Tasso and Waverley streets and Seale Avenue, and Nichols and her friends are getting calls from residents on other streets who want to know how they can get in on bringing the holiday glow to their blocks.
Sutorius said she is delighted by the neighborhood transformation.
"People put their own kinds of dreams and wishes into their displays. Some of the lights are really spectacular," she said.
She first started connecting neighbors while trying to build an emergency-preparedness network. The block parties, neighborhood email lists and holiday trees are all part of building a strong and resilient neighborhood whose residents can band together in any crisis.
"Knowing each other is what it comes down to," she said. "At the end of the day, who has your back?"
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