Ceres 'Christmas Tree Lane' lights up faces for holidays

When you live at the corner of "Christmas Tree Lane" and "Christmas Tree Lane," there are certain expectations.

Lights? Of course. Garland? Certainly. Homemade PVC fencing complete with a 20-foot overhead canopy and 3-foot-tall lettering reading "Let It Snow?" What are we, amateurs?

For eight years, the Peedens have lived at Vaughn Street and Henry Avenue in Ceres, the epicenter of the neighborhood known as Christmas Tree Lane.

The Peedens have even installed customized Christmas Tree Lane street signs.

Their home is among the 35-some houses whose residents put on a sensational seasonal show to the delight of generations.

"I used to come here when I was a kid," said Celesta Peeden, who, with husband Steve Peeden, was putting the final touches on their display Sunday afternoon. "So, oh, yeah, that was one of the draws moving here."

Families that live on Christmas Tree Lane have been part of a Ceres tradition that dates to 1961 when it started as a friendly neighborly competition.

That simple keeping up with the Joneses has evolved into a major draw for the city, bringing in thousands of visitors annually.

The city kicks off its yearly Christmas Festival at nearby Smyrna Park and the grand opening of Christmas Tree Lane at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Peedens are far from the only ones who plan, shop and design all year in preparation for the December display.

Down the street on Henry at the start of Christmas Tree Lane, neighborhood newcomer Daniel Guel works hard to keep pace. The father of three was stringing lights on his sled while an animatronic Santa waved to passers-by.

Since moving in three years ago, he has installed a snow machine to blanket his lawn and driveway.

"Eventually, I want to compete with the guy down the street," he said, talking about Peeden and his holiday arsenal. "Last year, I saw him checking mine out. But it's all in good fun."

A few houses from Guel, the Avilas were busy with their holiday cheer. Derek Avila and his 12-year-old son, Derek II, were on the roof with their dog Rusty putting up a giant lighted wreath.

The family has lived on Christmas Tree Lane for 15 years. Derek and his wife, Linda, try to change their display annually. They've even traveled to similar displays as far away as Fresno and Pacific Grove for ideas.

The Avilas and the Paynes have the only houses on the block that stretch lights from one side of the street to the other. The scheme involves a light pole and a metal rod screwed into the top of one of the Avilas' trees.

"If you don't like Christmas, you don't buy a house here," Linda Avila said. "We walk (the block daily) when the lights are up. It is exciting."

Tom and Cheri Payne have lived across from the Avilas for 11 years. Their son and daughter-in-law live two houses down. But the block's familial feel extends well past actual family.

The Sunday after the grand opening, the neighborhood comes together for a big potluck block party to celebrate.

"I think we have a unique neighborhood," Cheri Payne said. "A lot of people I talk to at work say they don't know their neighbors. We know everyone."

Of course, that kind of seasonal spirit isn't restricted to Ceres. Modesto has smaller-scale versions including the long-running displays along Londonderry Court off Rumble Road.

Jan Parodi and Karen Kerl have lived in the neighborhood for 28 years and been decorating just as long. On Sunday afternoon, the friends were hard at work with their Pekingese Buffi.

"It used to be everyone came out the day after Thanksgiving, and everything went up," Kerl said. "But we're all getting older, and every year it gets a little harder."

Londonderry Court residents used to race to see who could get the first decoration up after Thanksgiving, with the winner receiving an ornament. Parodi would come out at midnight to ensure her prize.

But, she said, it's not the competition that really keeps her at it year after year.

"I love to see people coming down the street, smiling," she said. "It's great for the kids, and that's what it is all about. Christmas is for the kids."

Back at Christmas Tree Lane, 22-year block veteran Craig Hollingsworth thinks of this time of year with anticipation and dread.

"I'm smart enough to not want to do it," he said. "But I look forward to it, too, particularly visiting with neighbors. That part is good."

One thing they agree on is that there is no surefire way to untangle the lights.

"It's still a process. You have to untangle them, find out which ones work. There is no easy way," he said.

Managing all that merriment comes at a cost exceeding the thousands of dollars many families spend in decorations. Residents contend with power surges and circuit breaker overloads, too. Many have taken to dimming their inside lights and running major appliances only during the daytime to avoid blowouts.

And, as the Peedens will tell you, storing all that holiday cheer the other 11 months is no easy feat either.

"We have a two-car garage that doesn't have any cars in it," Celesta Peeden said. "But it's all worth it to watch the people come by."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at or 578-2284.

View Ceres Christmas Tree Lane in a larger map