***Ed note: I’m on holiday in Mexico. I’ll reply to comments posted on the site once I’m home. Feliz año nuevo! —John***
Guess where to spot the best Christmas lights in San Francisco. Union Square? Nope. The number-one light display is not corporately sponsored. High on Castro Hill, at 3650 21st Street, stands a little gingerbread Victorian, dwarfed by a 30-foot-high tree covered in lights and surrounded by gift-wrapped boxes as big as Volkswagen Beetles. And the entire scene is scaled to look as if the tree were only five feet tall.
The house vanishes behind the decorations. The garage serves as a sort of fireplace, above which hang two eight-foot-high stockings brimming with gigantic teddy bears. A smiling stuffed polar bear rides an oversized model train around the tree skirt, while a matchstick carnival spins and whirs nearby.
Twenty years ago, Tom Taylor and his partner Jerry (yes, Tom and Jerry) bought a tiny Norfolk Island pine at Costco that grew like mad. They soon planted it in the front yard and started decorating it. As the tree grew, so did the display. Now they need a 60-foot cherry picker to string the lights, a task that takes two men an entire week to complete.
Santa shows up every evening to hand out candy canes—approximately 5,000 of them in a single season. He used to distribute 15,000 in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, “but that was in the days before car seats,” says Tom. Now parents have to hassle with strapping in one or two kids instead of piling ten of them into the back of a station wagon. Fewer come around these days. Make the effort. Show the kids that Santa doesn’t live in shopping centers, but in the imaginations of wacky locals who put on shows for free.
To get here, take the J Church to 21st St, and walk up the hill.
Two Last-Minute Easy Gift Ideas
Idea #1: Dulce de Leche
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cash-strapped and stuck for presents? Make instant dulce de leche, an effortless task with big payoff. Here’s how to do it the fast way. (Purists may disagree, but this recipe is awesome.)
—Take several unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk, and remove their labels.
—Crisscross a few teaspoons across the bottom of a deep pot.
—Put the unopened cans on top of the teaspoons, and fill the pot with enough water to completely submerge the cans.
—Place the pot on the stove, and bring water to a rolling boil.
—Cook for 90 minutes, ensuring the cans remain entirely submerged; add water as necessary. (The teaspoons prevent the cans from making direct contact with the bottom of the pot and dangerously overheating—and potentially exploding. Ensure the cans do not lay flat or seal against the pot!) You can cook it longer—up to four hours—if you like the concoction very dark and caramelized, but 90 minutes does the trick.
—Allow the cans to cool. Once at room temperature, spoon the contents into 8oz mason jars.
—Slap on a ribbon and voilà! Serve with apple slices, ice cream, toast, dark chocolate, or straight out of the jar.
Idea #2: Give a Needy Kid a Toy
There’s a fantastic charity called My Two Front Teeth, which helps disadvantaged kids get one specific toy they want for Christmas. Browse the site to read kids’ profiles, which include crayon drawings and their favorite things, then choose the one you want to sponsor. Gifts start at about $20, chump change for most, but a big deal for these kids. And you can donate in someone else’s name, elevating your reputation. Do it right now. You’ll feel good. I did.