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Old holiday photos of San Francisco will bring cheer, good tidings

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From Market Street before the 1906 quake to a Haight lesbian bar in the 1980s, here’s how the city used to deck the halls

Photo via SF Public Library

Jingle, jingle, folks. It’s the holidays—i.e., bells on bobtails, ding dong merrily on high, and a dreidel made of clay. San Francisco has made it a point of decorating itself to the nines during December, a tradition dating back to pre-great earthquake times.

While most of the city’s decorations are of the Christmas variety, from thousands of lights to mega-scale trees, they were hardly as bombastic or garish as some of today’s designs. That said, the holiday decor of yore was also very much one-sided and lacking diversity, paying tribute only to a Christian holiday.

A few highlights from San Francisco’s cheery past: Macy’s in Union Square used to transform its exterior signage into a massive stocking. Market Street looked like an electric winter wonderland of illuminated glory prior to 1906. And the Top of the Mark should really reconsider putting back up its old lighting scheme. Glorious.

Here now is a collection of some of the city’s holiday spirit, ranging from 1901 times up until the 1980s.

Gardeners preparing a floral Christmas display outside the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
Knights Templar nighttime decorations at Market, Kearny, Geary, and Third streets, 1904.
Knights Templar nighttime decorations at Market, Kearny, Geary, and Third streets, 1904.
Photo via SF Public Library
People celebrating the holidays at the Union Square Lounge, 1941.
Photo via SF Public Library
Christmas decorations on Mission Street, 1949. The Mission District's 'Miracle Mile' captured top honors in 1949's District Christmas Decorations Contest, sponsored by the Retail Merchants Association
Photo via SF Public Library
Lotta's Fountain at Market and Kearny Streets decorated for Christmas, circa 1920s.
Photo via SF Public Library
The city's fire stations had their own decoration competitions. Here’s the Presidio Fire Station’s entry in 1950.
Photo via SF Public Library
Before it became Neiman-Marcus, the tree inside City of Paris department store in Union Square was a huge draw.
Photo via SF Public Library
Houses decorated with Christmas lights on 18th Avenue, 1947.
Photo via SF Public Library

Christmas decoration outside fire house Engine 21, 1948.
Photo via SF Public Library
Christmas decoration outside the old firehouse Engine 21 at 1152 Oak, 1950.
Christmas decoration outside the old firehouse Engine 21 at 1152 Oak, 1950.
Photo via SF Public Library
Group of students and staff from Grattan School in the rotunda of City Hall for a Christmas program.
Photo via SF Public Library
Christmas at Maude’s Bar in 1987.
Photo via SF Public Library