Huge Hand-Crafted Holiday Display Outlives Its El Cerrito Creator—a Sikh Immigrant

By Martin Snapp

* For up-to-date information about the 2020 Sundar Shadi Holiday Display, click here. 

On Saturday morning, El Cerrito firefighters working on their own time will haul scores of handmade stucco and plaster statues uphill from their storage site to the corner of Moeser and Seaview. There, Boy Scouts from Troop 104 will arrange them to create a massive tableau of Bethlehem: Wise Men, goats, donkeys, camels, camel drivers, more than 60 sheep tended by shepherds and sheep dogs, village people, and the village itself, including 110 hand-painted buildings, minarets and domes.

“We’ve already been working for the last two weeks, putting the lights, sound equipment, and security cameras up and covering the ground with mulch so everything is firm and ready to receive the figures,” says El Cerrito Mayor Greg Lyman. “Depending on how much rain we get on Thursday, I might go out there on Friday and weed whack the site one more time.”

And for the next two weeks, as they have for more than six decades, thousands of visitors will come from all over the Bay Area every night to view the display until December 27, when the statues return to storage for another year.

It’s a tradition that goes back to 1949, when the neighbors of Sundar Shadi awoke on Christmas morning to find a large sculpture of a star he had created in the yard next to his home on Arlington Boulevard.

He kept adding figures—crafted out of coat hangers, juice bottles, coffee tins, stucco, plaster of Paris and chicken wire—until they numbered in the hundreds .

The next year, he added some sheep and shepherds. The year after that, camels and donkeys. And he kept adding figures year after year—all lovingly hand-crafted out of common household items such as coat hangers, juice bottles, coffee and cookie tins, stucco, plaster of Paris and chicken wire—until they numbered in the hundreds. The buildings were crafted from milk cartons, the camels’ manes made from rope, reins fashioned from old leather belts. Shadi’s wife, Dorothy, created weatherproof clothes for the human figures out of old oil tablecloths and plastic shower curtains.

The final additions were a giant angel to watch over everything and two huge tablets with a Bible verse, Luke 2: 7-11 (the same verse that Linus famously recites in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”) – “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

Curiously, Shadi was not a Christian himself. “My father was a Sikh who came from the Punjab, a place where ISIS is very strong now,” says his youngest daughter, Vera. “He suffered a lot of religious persecution in India—one of his brothers was killed during a violent uprising—and his family had to flee to what is now Pakistan. He was very grateful for the tolerance he found in America, and he always said he wanted to create a spot of peace because he came from a war-torn area. He really didn’t know anything about the Christmas story when he came here. My mother taught it to him. But he wanted a display that would reflect everyone’s beliefs, no matter what their religion.”

“I think it was his way of saying ‘I love you’ to his neighbors in a language we could all understand,” adds former Mayor Jane Bartke.

(There are so many mayors in this story, you might begin to wonder, “Is there anyone in El Cerrito who hasn’t been mayor?” And the answer is: Not many. The mayor’s office rotates every year among city council members.)

Shadi didn’t know much about making sculptures, either. “He went to the library to research stucco and plaster-making techniques and studied animal pictures on Christmas cards,” says his eldest daughter, Zilpha. “He started making sheep. More animals followed. The first head of a person he made looked so much like a friend of his, he decided not to use it. The heads were put on the front steps of our house to dry. The first one was put on the top step. Soon heads were down on all of the steps.

Sundar Shadi came to America in 1921 to study horticulture at Cal, where he got his bachelor’s degree in 1926 and his master’s three years later. He met his future wife, Dorothy Clarke, at the campus’s International House.

She was as remarkable in her own way as he was. A 1929 graduate of UCLA, she received her master’s in Spanish and French from UC Berkeley the following year and her Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature in 1934. After taking several years off to raise their three daughters—Zilpha, Ramona and Vera—she returned to Cal in 1948 and climbed the academic ladder to become a professor of Spanish, Assistant Dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, and a leading authority on Hispanic literature. She was also awarded the Berkeley Citation for “services to the university above and beyond the call of duty.” Though her students and professional colleagues knew her as Mrs. Shadi, all her academic publications were published under her maiden name, Dorothy Clotelle Clarke.

“Dorothy was known as The Cookie Lady in our neighborhood,” adds Jane Bartke. “All the kids in the neighborhood knew they could go to her back door and get cookies.”

In 1948, Sundar Shadi became an American citizen. Despite the fact that he encountered less discrimination here than back in India, there was still enough prejudice to deny him work in his chosen profession.

Undaunted, he got a job pumping gas in a gas station. He worked hard and saved his money, and within a couple of years he had enough to buy the station. Then he bought another one. And another. And another. Then he branched out to other properties, including a lot on the corner of Shattuck and University in Berkeley, which he leased to a fledgling new hamburger chain called McDonald’s.

But he never gave up his interest in horticulture, publishing many scholarly articles and being elected to several professional societies, including Phi Sigma Biological Society and the Society of Subtropical Horticulturalists.

By 1949 he had amassed enough money to retire, and that’s when his true calling began. That Christmas the first star appeared on the hillside next to his home, and the rest is history.

“Dorothy wanted him to have activities, as all good wives want their husbands to do when they retire so they won’t drive us crazy,” says Dee Amaden, one of the next generation of volunteers who are keeping the tradition alive.

“To most people around here, Mr. Shadi was Christmas. The holiday display was his gift to his neighbors and his city, which he loved so much.”

His wife died in 1992, but Sundar kept going until failing eyesight and hearing forced him to give up the annual display four years later. He died in 2002, just one month short of his 102nd birthday. Former Mayor Jean Siri spoke for the whole city when she said, “I feel a great vacancy. First it was my tradition, then my kids’ tradition, and now my grandchildren’s tradition.”

But then something wonderful happened. The people of El Cerrito refused to let his legacy die with him. Under the leadership of Jane Bartke, who was president of Soroptimists International of El Cerrito, the Soroptimists formed the nonprofit El Cerrito Community Foundation, which assumed ownership of the Shadi sculptures from his family and agreed to revive the annual holiday display.

Bartke and her husband Rich, a friend of Shadi’s for more than 35 years, lined up the firefighters and local volunteers to move the display to its new location at the corner of Moeser and Seaview, where PG&E owns property that it agreed to let the Community Foundation use every December.

Many of the sculptures were in deteriorating condition by then, especially two large camels with eight broken legs and a broken neck between them. So Matt Houser, a senior at El Cerrito High and an Eagle Scout, repaired the two camels with help from his younger brothers, Ethan and Zach, who went on to become Eagle Scouts themselves. “I’d been seeing the display every year since I was a little kid, so I thought it would be a cool thing to do,” says Matt. “We created an inner skeleton with steel and rebar, so the weight would not be supported by the chicken wire or the plaster. We put a steel plate in the abdomen area and then welded rebar from that plate down the legs and up the neck. It’s similar to the way the Statue of Liberty is constructed.”

That tradition is being continued this year by Alexander Bjeldanes and Jared Long, who have rebuilt several houses, domes and minarets as their Eagle Scout Project.

Over the years the display has garnered many awards, including the San Francisco Examiner Outdoor Lighting Contest, Northern California Outdoor Christmas Tree Award Association Grand Award, and the General Electric National Outdoor Christmas Decoration Contest, as well as being featured in Sunset Magazine.

Ideal viewing hours are between 5 and 10 p.m., when the village is illuminated exactly as Shadi intended. “One of the little tricks he had was to tilt the buildings slightly toward the viewer so you can just make out the top of the roofs,” Lyman says. “That was the perspective he wanted.”

Volunteer docents, called Shepherds, will be on hand to talk with visitors and provide more insight into Shadi and his amazing creation, under the guidance of Lead Shepherd Donna Houser, a fellow Cal alum whose day job is senior director of facilities and hospitality at Alumni House. In addition, the display will feature live concerts of traditional Christmas music by the Contra Costa Chorale at 7 p.m. on December 15, the Unitarian Choir at 7 p.m. on December 17, and handbell musicians Larry and Carla Sue at 7 p.m. on December 19 and 23 (Editor’s note: Click here for information on Shadi Holiday Display events taking place in 2016).

There are two additions to the display this year. One is a new figurine: a life-sized statue of Shadi himself, modeled after a picture of him in an old newspaper clip. The other is an improved security system.”

“Last year, after the lights were turned off, a vehicle showed up and two people got out and stole the angel’s head and an entire shepherd,” says Lyman. “Unfortunately, the video turned out too grainy to identify them. We’ve replaced the head and the shepherd, but we’ve also upgraded the video cameras to get much better definition. If anyone tries it again this year, they’ll get caught.”

Everyone associated with the project, from the Bartkes on down, is contributing services free of charge. But there are always incidental expenses to be met, including electricity, insurance, light bulbs, electrical cords and storage. And, of course, more volunteers are always needed.

A website for the Shadi display offers links for people wishing to volunteer or donate: for example, sponsors can “adopt” individual figures such as one of the Wise Men, camel included ($500) or the big blue star ($200). The sheep are a steal at $25, probably because there are so many of them.

“To most people around here, Mr. Shadi was Christmas,” says Jane Bartke. “The holiday display was his gift to his neighbors and his city, which he loved so much. We’re going to keep that tradition going for at least another 60 years, and hopefully forever.”




(All display photos courtesy of the El Cerrito Community Foundation.)

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I am so glad that the volunteers have taken up the putting up the display. For many years people from all around would go up and view the art work of this very talented and good man, thank you Mr. Shadi for all the years you did this, I know you are gone now, but thanks to the El Cerrito fire department you will live on.
Fact check please . ISIS is in Sriya and Punjab is in India or Pakistan Please get your facts correct before you write a statement like this.
I delivered Mr.Shadi’s mail for many years and he was always out there on the hill doing something. He was always giving me beautiful flowers that he had grown and just loved to talk about anything and everything. Loved him! I am so happy that they are carrying on his traditions and his work. He was a wonderful man.
Thanks to all who have brought back the display. I remember going every years to see it from the age of 9 . To me that was a display of love for all to see. I am now 69 and have moved from the area but this article has brought me back to my home town.
It made my day reading this story - I was completely unaware of this amazing story. Thanks for the great reporting!
We are another family with three generations sharing this Christmas tradition. Another tradition Mr. Shadi had was planting his garden with colorful flowers in rug patterns in the summertime. What a giving spirit!
My father was a Chief with the El Cerrito Fire Department and we moved out of the area when he retired. I remember this display from my childhood and had forgotten about it until I saw this article. Hats off to the folks that work so hard to keep this going.
Going by this display was a family tradition since I was a child in the late 1960’s. I continued the tradition with my own kids. Now I can take my grandkids! Such a beautiful display…….
Just to clarify Punjab after 1947 partition in India has no ISIS. I think his daughter is referring to Punajab before 1947 partition, which is now in Pakistan. We Sikhs are not affiliated with ISIS at all. We are peace loving people who are mistakenly taken as other religion. Sikh men can be seen in Turbans. Yes I used to admire and cherished Mr. Shadi’s work over the years! I used to take my kids and people who visited us from here or from abroad to see his passion for all the festive decorations!
Just to clarify Punjab after 1947 partition in India has no ISIS. I think his daughter is referring to Punajab before 1947 partition, which is now in Pakistan. We Sikhs are not affiliated with ISIS at all. We are peace loving people who are mistakenly taken as other religion. Sikh men can be seen in Turbans. Yes I used to admire and cherished Mr. Shadi’s work over the years! I used to take my kids and people who visited us from here or from abroad to see his passion for all the festive decorations!
This is what you had to say about this lovely article? That’s his daughter being quoted so I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about. For the record, “The Punjab is a geographical region in the northernmost part of the Indian subcontinent or South Asia, comprising areas of eastern Pakistan and northern India.” It’s both. Also, you need to fact check because ISIS is indeed in Punjab.
I grew up in Albany, next door to El Cerrito. I don’t know how young I was the first time I remember seeing his display, perhaps 3 or 4. Part of Christmas to me was for my family to visit this display, every year. It is a three generation thing for my family as well. I would guess my grandparents came too, so maybe even 4. I even had dates, built around it! We eventually moved around the corner from the display when I was in my teens. I didn’t know the whole back story until now. I knew he was not Christian, and it was his gift to us, but didn’t really know why. I was a medical transcriptionist in my thirties, and I typed his medical reports. So even though I didn’t really know my neighbor personally, I knew him intimately. That is how I knew some of his story. What an amazing couple. It is so wonderful to know that this is being kept alive… I have photos of the carpets he used to grow. Now I will try to resurrect them…
My grandparents lived around the corner from the Shadi’s, and I grew up looking forward to his holiday display. What shouldn’t be forgotten, however, are all the “oriental carpet” flower beds he planted and groomed all year round. He took a steep and rocky slope along the Arlington and created magic!
you missed the whole point of the story! It was a beautiful story! To us in the bay area who grew up and seen this wonderful display, the geographical specifics are NOT important, His Legacy is! Try finding something positive out of this story!
My sister and I were just reminiscing about this kind Samaritan, with his loving hands and generosity would create such a wonderful Christian display! This work of joy was always appreciated by me and my family. It was such a spectacular sight to see as a child and as an adult. I wish I could of thanked him. He truly was a wonder human to partake and capture Christmas! People came from all over to see the magnificent sight! Thank you, kind Sir. You were truly a wonderful person. God Bless your family!
I grew up loving the beauty this gentleman created. When I was a small child in El Cerrito and every year after moving away, I would visit my grandmother and we would go to this hill to see the Christmas decor. When Mr. Shandi passed away, I remember being sad. I didn’t want to lose something that made me so happy growing up. I am pleased to have stumbled upon this article. Now I plan to take my children back to El Cerrito so that I may share with them one of many childhood memories that filled me with the Christmas spirit and gave me an appreciation for hard work and dedication…
I went to school with Verna Shadi. I grew up watching the Christmas display grow. The Shadi family was treasure given to us all. We grew up knowing the story, knowing the goodness. That was our world. Thank you Mr. Shadi for helping make me who I am and showing so many the spirit of love.
Dang, u mean out of all of this beautiful, heartwarming, touching story, that’d what you came up with as a comment?! Wow. .. and no wonder our world is the way it is!! Thank u to all the volumeers And the City of El Cerrito for keeping this Great couples tradition alive, I remember going to see this as a child in complete awe.. and now my children get to experience it as well! The true meaning of Christmas, God bless u all!
I read this and was like, WHAT?!? So incorrect! You’re right!
What DIFFERENCE does the geographical specifics of this story make? The POINT of this story is all the wonderful memories Mr. Shadi created for THOUSANDS of ppl over the course of DECADES…handcrafted with love out of everyday household odds & ends. He did it to show his love and appreciation for ppl…for Americans who accepted him into their country, despite his religious background—it was his way of giving back. WE COULD ALL TAKE A LESSON HERE. Politics, religion, and GEOGRAPHY aside, this article runs deep for me. What a man—what a family. …and his name was Shadi.
In high school my brother Jim was in a garage band. His band, The Group, entered a Battle of the Bands at which Mr. Shadi emceed. Mr. shadi’s grand speech accent brought a roar of laughter when he asked the audience if they “wanted to hear a ‘yoak’?”….Then ….he told a totally G rated joke. Very funny! I visited the yard throughout high school and, until Mr. shadi’s passing, with my two daughters and wife. My family’s best regards to Mr. Shadi’s family.
Mr. Shadi was one of the nicest, kindest people I have ever met. When I was working at Standard Brands Paint in El Cerrito in the late 60’s I had an opportunity to serve him as a customer in search of materials to make more sheep! It was an honor! Our family still takes time every year to visit his display and when my health is better I hope to be able to join the volunteers who carry on his incredible tradition! Thank you so much for sharing this story!
I loved seeing this every Christmas from the time I was 3 or 4 and every year after that. I looked forward to seeing this and after I was married took my husband who didn’t know about it and he grew up in Berkeley and Albany. When we had our children we took them to see it. I now live in Arizona and wondered if they still put it up. I am glad they do and hope that other generations can see this. I hope someday to come up with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren so they can see it. Thank you so much for keeping this tradition going. God bless all the volunteers.
My mom took us to this and we brought are children. We moved out of state but I was so excited that this is still continuing. You are a blessing to people.
I remember this like it was yesterday, my parents would take the family every year to see the scenery all over the many cities, my favorite was the one in El Cerrito. Many cars would travel this street, every car would be going so slowly, and you would still miss something. If you were able to find a park, we would view the town of Bethlehem at a closer range. I am forever grateful for Mr Shadi for making my childhood view of the Bible so real. When I became a parent I also took my children to see this scenery, my children have taken their children to see this scenery. Thank you for getting this tradition, it is a MUST SEE, and forever memory
I first saw Sundar Shadi’s hillside Christmas tableau as a five-year-old in 1949. It grew and grew with every year. In the spring he covered the hillside in flower arrangements that looked like magic carpets … the colors and patterns were gorgeous! I went to Portola Junior High School with Verna (not Vera) Shadi. She and her sisters were fantastic students and very gifted musicians. I attended a birthday for Verna and was able to see all of the trophies that Sundar had won for his Christmas displays. He was eventually given the “Perpetual Trophy” since he won every year. I, too, have taken my children, and then my grandchildren, to see his wonderful display. I am so pleased that so many people are working hard to carry on his tradition. Kudos to all of you!!!!!
She calls herself Vera now.
I was born in El Cerrito, and was fortunate to watch him add a display every year. Thanks to all the volunteers to keep this alive.
I was born in El Cerrito, and was fortunate to watch him add a display every year. Thanks to all the volunteers to keep this alive.
I didn’t mean to imply that Sikhs are involved with ISIS. To the contrary, Mr. Shadi came to this country to avoid religious extremism,
Fact check yourself. ISIS is believed to have a logistical network throughout the middle East, Europe, and South Asia. They operate in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, and are responsible for attacks in multiple other places. They are NOT strictly Syrian. Even the name mentions Iraq and/or the Levant.
My Daughter in WV just posted this article to my FB page. I remember this as a kid but more so when my kids were growing up. We’d drive up and sometimes get out of the car if there happen to not be too many cars. I remember some nights police would have to direct traffic so there would not be any traffic jams. I remember hearing that Mr. Shadi was not a Christian but I was touched by the display even more….and in the spring time the lovely flowers that he always planted. Both the nativity and flowers were a feast for the eyes….so happy to hear that it will continue and another generation of kids can enjoy it.
I too remember Mr. shadi’s display. However, I never saw the carpet of flowers. If anyone has a photo, it would be nice if it could be posted.
I too remember Mr. shadi’s display. However, I never saw the carpet of flowers. If anyone has a photo, it would be nice if it could be posted.
ISIS allied groups are all over the Islamic dominated countries. In the west punjab, part of partitioned(based on religious concentrations)Greater Punjab, that fell in Pakistan’s borders, there is a threat but not any significant presence yet of ISIS. The indian media and journalists often blow up such propaganda out of proportion for western ingestion. The Sikh & Hindu inhabitants of this region, in 1947 had to chose between being massacred by religious bloodletting or migrating south of the border. Over twelve million, mostly Sikhs were uprooted from their homes of several generations.
It is a very nice article, no doubt. I too was thrown off by Mr. Shadi’s Sikh origins in west punjab and the ISIS presence there nowadays, since the sentence seemed to co-relate Sikhs with ISIS. We are having a tough time educating the world of our differentiation from the general perception, due to our Turban, Unshorn hair and facial features, of our association with Middle East terror groups.
Miss Martin, we all know you meant well, it just somehow appeared to associate sikhs with ISIS. A wonderful article and congratulate you on the true spirit of tolerance and acceptance this story represents.
In what way did it associate Sikhs with ISIS?
“My father was a Sikh who came from the Punjab, a place where ISIS is very strong now,”
This is one of the most thorough, and accurate, pieces ever done on Mr. Shadi and his Display. The volunteers of the Shadi Display Committee thank you, Martin.
My father, Smitty, also delivered mail to him and always talked about how nice he was. He would be very happy to know the tradition lives on.
Dear Patty, Thank you for your comments. You’re exactly right: the specifics don’t matter. My father did what he did to “create a beautiful moment in a peaceful country.” He was always very grateful to get to be in this country.
I was born in El Cerrito in 1967, lived there for several years, and have lived in Marin County since, but Mom brought me on many El Cerrito visits during the 1970s, and I remember seeing Mr. Shadi’s wonderful displays of garden artistry when we passed his Arlington house. I never knew who he was until I read his 2002 obit — and then forgot and had to do online research. With luck, I’ll now remember Mr. Shadi. (I’m currently experiencing a strong outburst of El Cerrito nostalgia, which I haven’t felt for many years. I’m sad that Adachi’s Florists on San Pablo was replaced by Home Depot.)
You are utterly ignorant and have no idea what you are talking about. Ignorance must be true bliss for you. Islamabad is in Pakistan, this article is referring to the Punjab region in Pakistan. Mr Shadi lived in the Pakistan Punjab region before partition and that is what his daughter was referring to, not Indias Punjab.
When I was in high school 25+ years ago, my friend and I interviewed Mr Shadi for our school newspaper, The Spartan Spectrum. It was by far the most memorable and amazing process. Mr Shadi was so kind to us and just an all around wonderful person.. I will never forget him… -Casey Stratmeyer
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