Christmas at Tilden

Of all the magical stories, this one is hard to top for its magic-ness:

It was a Friday afternoon in December—I’m pretty sure it was the kids’ last day of school before the winter break, but don’t quote me. My ex and I were still together at the time. He had taken off for a weekend in Seattle with his ex—without bothering to tell me until he was already on his way to the airport.

This was not the first time something like this had happened.

I was not in a very good mood.

To my (and/or my previously mentioned guardian angel’s) credit, I did not do what I usually did in those situations: sit and stew. Instead, I decided call a friend and see if they wanted to go for a drive with the kids—nowhere special, just get out and ride around.

We just started tooling around for a while, and then one of us—well, one of the adults, it wouldn’t have been the boys—suggested we head up to Tilden. Tilden is an enormous regional park in the Berkeley hills, with a bunch of windy roads and housing a lake, a steam train, pony rides, and other attractions. It wasn’t exactly a destination on a December Friday at 5pm—by which point night had pretty much fallen—but it was as good as any for a “distraction” drive.

We headed up through North Berkeley—which is not normally how I would go up to Tilden, but that’s how magic works—and started heading down the windy, steep road to the lake at the bottom of a canyon. About three-quarters of the way down, we found ourselves in a short line of cars, which seemed unusual given the time and location. And then, at the end of the road, we saw it.

At that intersection, the turn to the lake is to the right. But immediately to the left, there is the Tilden Park carousel. As carousels go, there isn’t much to say about it, other than that I believe it’s really old. But that night … well, let’s just say we didn’t make the right to the lake. We instead made the left: straight to Santa’s Village.

The carousel itself was covered in lights, as was its enclosure, as was the enormous evergreen just outside—how they got the lights up that high, I can only imagine the size of the ladder. Inside the carousel enclosure, all around the edges, were small Christmas trees covered in ornaments for sale, each with a different theme: one had trains, one musical instruments, one plush animals, even one with UC Berkeley items. As the boys and I had a tradition where every year each of us bought a new ornament, the setting couldn’t have been more perfect.

Meanwhile, back at the village: Next to the carousel was a booth selling seasonally appropriate food such as popcorn, cider, and hot chocolate. Between that and the big tree was Santa’s home, featuring occasional visits from the jolly man himself—though not, unfortunately, while we were there.

Across the walkway from that was the rest of Santa’s village: a full assembly of lit homes, walkways, a few reindeer, I even want to say a geographically confused penguin. Not to mention proof that Miss (Shirley) Kookamooka is real, which might have been the sweetest treat of all—at least for dad.

All very magical, all completely unplanned. As we were leaving, we saw the line of cars to get in now stretched at least 50 long up the hill—so our timing was spot-on as well. The perfect exclamation point to our surprise visit to the North Pole.

Next: Small World

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