Clairemont Christmas Lights

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Santa and his reindeer soar over Lana Lane (photo by Darrell Park)

Season Greetings To Clairemont Christmas Park

By Bill Swank

I carried a large, black garbage bag into Fairlane Cleaners on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard and the proprietor, Sarah Na, laughed. She asked, “Is it already that time of year again? How long have you been bringing your Santa suit to me?”

Sarah Na takes Santa's suit for dry cleaning (photo by Bill Swank)
Sarah Na takes Santa’s suit for dry cleaning (photo by Bill Swank)

This will be my 14th year wearing the red wool ensemble at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. Sarah and Santa agree… time flies when you’re having fun.

Pulling away from the Fairlane parking lot, I made a few quick turns to visit a neighborhood that will soon transform into a spectacular display of Christmas lights. For almost 40 years, approximately 40 homes on Jamar Drive, Jamar Court, Lana Lane and Lana Drive have decorated for the holiday season. Every year, this semi-circular route off Mt Abernathy Drive behind Madison High School is consistently rated as one of the best Christmas displays in San Diego County.

Only one problem: It doesn’t have a name.

Don Park as Santa Claus (Photo from Don & Donna Park)

The first year, he walked from house to house with his young son putting flyers in mailboxes. The response was favorable. He made new flyers for the next few years, but nobody knew who he was. In Don’s words, “Everything grew from there and it just took off.” The founder is Don Park, a modest man, who started the tradition in 1977. The development was new and he wanted to do something special for Clairemont. He remembered as a boy, that his parents took him to Balboa Park and Candy Cane Lane in Chula Vista during the holidays. Don decided his new neighborhood should decorate for the season.

One of his favorite stories involves a young man who regularly visited Lana Lane at Christmastime with his girlfriend. The suitor wanted to propose marriage and enlisted Don’s help. The swain made a low wattage “Will You Marry Me?” sign, but Don felt it needed more lights.

Days later, when the couple approached the Park residence, the young romantic noticed a disconnected cord on the ground. His girlfriend cautioned him not to touch anything. He plugged the ends together and even he was surprised when a very bright sign lit up to ask: “Will you marry me?” The couple may have returned one or two years and then they disappeared.

Nowadays, it pleases him when people approach and introduce their children. They relate how their parents brought them to see the lights when they were young. He loves visiting with seniors in wheelchairs, children in strollers and families out for a walk. He dressed as Santa Claus for a few years, but apparently was uncomfortable as the center of attention.

Don estimates that half the original owners still live on Jamar and Lana. His wife, Donna, added, “People have been known to buy homes in our neighborhood to be part of the Christmas decorations.”

Don was recently diagnosed with cancer and has begun radiation treatment. His wife, sons and neighbors will help with the decorations this year. Praise and recognition embarrass Don Park. He credits the success of the lighting displays to his neighbors.

Kevin Lin is 19-years-old. His family moved to Jamar Drive when he was 12. At the time, they were unaware of the Christmas decorations on their new street. The family enjoys being part of this tradition.

John Mangiapane, a retired commercial fisherman, and his wife have lived on Jamar since the 1970s. They have actively decorated from the start.

One of John’s favorite memories is the year Channel 8 was filming neighborhood decorations and noticed all the people walking through the open front door of his home. The TV crew boldly followed and accepted an invitation to stay for a large, extended Italian family Christmas dinner.

Mangiapane produced his schematic that shows the location of all the decorations. It takes

John Mangiapane holds the schematic for his Christmas lights display (photo by Bill Swank)
John Mangiapane holds the schematic for his Christmas lights display (photo by Bill Swank)

three to four days to trim his trees with strings of white lights. There is a signature lighted bow-tie on the roof of the garage. His electricity bill goes up $400 every December, but the smiling faces make it all worthwhile.

Lisa Kirk, a 17 year resident on connecting Lana Drive has a good sense of humor. “You can tell when the San Diego Gas and Electric bills come, because that’s the night the lights go out.”

Norma Amante’s face beams when she talks about her neighborhood. “We celebrated Christmas in the Philippines when I was a little girl, but nothing like they do on this street. We moved here in 1977 and began decorating in 1978. We have Santa and Mrs. Claus in our front yard. We got them at Sear’s and their heads move. You can’t buy them anymore. Because of all the Christmas decorations here, everybody is very close. There is no place like America.”

Connie Bond has lived on Lana Lane since 2002. She said, “The real estate agent made us aware that everybody decorated for Christmas. Don Park is our next door neighbor. He’s the man who started all this and he’s great.”

She noted, “The worst thing that ever happened was somebody stole Baby Jesus.” Don’s youngest son, Darrell Park, believes stealing Baby Jesus was a fad promoted by social media. He might be right. “Baby Jesus Theft,” a 2008 phenomenon, even has its own Wikipedia page.

If “Baby Jesus Theft” can have a Wikipedia entry, Clairemont’s famous Christmas display has to have a worthy name.

The local treasure inspired by Don Park should be named in his honor…

Season’s Greetings to Clairemont Christmas Park.

The Bond-Park yards (photo by Darrell Park)
The Bond-Park yards (photo by Darrell Park)

 

Bill Swank outside the Buena Vista Garden Apartments on Cowley Way in 1955 with East Clairemont in the distance.
Bill Swank outside the Buena Vista Garden Apartments on Cowley Way in 1955 with East Clairemont in the distance.

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