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Sundar Singh Shadi's Christmas Pageant in El Cerrito, California

by MARTIN SNAPP

 

 

Once upon a time there was a man named Sundar Singh Shadi who came to this country from Punjab and settled in El Cerrito, California, U.S.A.

After arriving in 1921, he got a Master's degree in Horticulture from California, but because of prejudice against immigrants the only job he could get was pumping gas.

Instead of complaining he worked hard, saved his money, made some smart investments, and retired a moderately wealthy man at age 50 in 1949.

That's when he began his true calling.

That Christmas, his neighbors awoke to find a detailed recreation of the entire town of Bethlehem in his front yard - wise men, angels, doves, sheep, lambs, shepherds, cows, horses, donkeys, camels, the works. Each figure was lovingly created out of papier-mache and plaster of paris by Sundar himself.

He did it again every year after that, adding more figures each year, until failing eyesight forced him to call it quits in 1997.

The community quickly took the Christmas display to heart. Little kids grew up and brought their own kids, and then their grandkids, to see it.

Charter buses full of tourists came from as far away as San Jose and Sacramento - more than 70,000 every year.

For many people, Sundar Singh Shadi WAS Christmas. He was a real-life Santa Claus who gave us something more precious than toys: the true spirit of the holiday.

The funny thing was that he wasn't a Christian himself. He was a Sikh. He chose a Christmas display because that was the way he could say "I love you" in a language we could understand.

He died in 2002 at age 101. And then something wonderful happened.

The people of El Cerrito refused to let his legacy die.

Under the leadership of former Mayor Jane Bartke, they restored Sundar Singh's sculptures, which had deteriorated badly. That holiday season the Christmas display made a triumphant return at the corner of Moeser and Seaview. And it's been there every holiday season since.

But there's no guarantee it will be there next year. Bartke and her helpers - Gordon White, Richard Ritz, Jackson Lusk and Bartke's husband, Rich - are all in their 70s, and it's only a matter of time before they can't do it anymore.

Just as they stepped up 10 years ago, we need a new generation to step up and take over from them.

If you want to become part of this tradition, there's still time to learn the ropes this year because the Christmas display won't go up until Dec. 17 (it will remain there until Dec. 27). Call Bartke at 510-235-1315, and she'll put you to work.

Financial help is always needed, too, because papier-mâché deteriorates quickly from the moisture, even though the sculptures are outdoors for only 10 days.

You can "adopt" the figure of your choice. A Wise Man (camel included) goes for $500, a shepherd for $350, and sheep are a real deal at only $25. Send a tax-deductible check to the El Cerrito Community Foundation Inc., P. O. Box 324, El Cerrito CA 94530.

But more than money, what they really want is you.

This beloved holiday tradition can go on for hundreds of years. Or it can go away tomorrow, and after a generation nobody will remember. It's up to you, El Cerritans.

 

[Courtesy: Oakland Tribune. Edited for sikhchic.com]

December 3, 2011

 

 

 

 

Conversation about this article

1: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), December 03, 2011, 7:29 AM.

How beautiful! What a wonderful man he was | An exquisite language he knew | I know his teacher ...| Perhaps he will teach me a thing or two.

2: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.A.), December 05, 2011, 9:09 AM.

What a wonderful way to win the hearts of the host community! Good example of interfaith relations and integration with diverse America!

3: Jasinder P Singh Vedi (Faridabad, India), October 20, 2015, 4:56 PM.

Just by accident I was surfing the net for my Naana's (mother's father) younger brother, Chacha Sundar Singh to us all, about whom we had heard from our parents while growing up in Delhi in the 50's. All of what I read reminded me of the tales that my mother, my maamas (uncles), narrated to me about their chacha ji (father's younger brother) who left for the USA in or about 1922. My heart is filled with pride and joy to read the tales of my Naana, S. Rawel Singh's brother, S. Sundar Singh Shadi's hard work coupled with inter-community relations and integration. My salutations to the siblings of S. Sundar Singh, my aunties.

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