For the past decade, the Calafia Christmas tree has been a part of this beach-side community’s holiday tradition.
Longtime locals and visitors bring ornaments, some sentimental and paying homage to people who have passed, others silly to bring a smile to passerby. Ornaments are a mix of beachy memorabilia, personal messages and holiday decor on a tree that shows up each year just steps from the sand at Calafia State Beach in San Clemente.
Each year, Debbie Sheldrake-Stetson has donated and hauled a Christmas tree down to the end of the beach trail. Some people make it part of their holiday to-do list, taking family photos for Christmas cards or selfies, others stumbling upon it by chance.
This year, about a week after putting the tree up in early December, it went missing.
At first, Sheldrake-Stetson thought someone stole the tree. She has worried through the years about that, so she puts a lock on it to safeguard it from thieves. When word spread the tree had gone missing, someone gave her $300 to buy another one to set up at the same spot.
That one soon went missing, too.
After scrambling to find out what happened to the tree, and receiving a flood of messages of sympathy and outrage on social media, she found out the tree was removed by the city, an attempt to clear the train tracks for an upcoming inspection by the Federal Railway Administration, a step to stop horns from blowing as they pass by the beach.
Councilman Gene James said it was removed because the city would not have passed the FRA inspection, which was supposed to happen Thursday, Dec. 10, but was postponed until next week.
“The good news is, both those trees have been put back in that general vicinity,” he said. “They’re there now.”
When he saw the issue blow up on social media, he said he reached out to City Manager Erik Sund.
“I think we came out with a great middle ground, we’re placing the trees on the beach trail in the same vicinity, but not on the right-of-way for Metrolink.”
Metrolink was not involved in the removal of the tree from the Calafia pedestrian crossing in San Clemente, but support the city’s action to have it placed elsewhere, spokesman Scott Johnson said in an e-mail.
“We cannot grant permission for a tree at the Calafia or any crossing. It creates a safety risk, obstructs signage and crossing flashers, and would not comply with state or federal regulations,” he said. “We understand the community’s concern and empathize, and will work with city staff to resolve the matter in a way that would not be in conflict with the railway or put anyone at risk. Safety is Metrolink’s top priority.”
Sheldrake-Stetson went down to see the new locations – right next to the parking lot – and said she was not happy, worried thieves will take the trees in the dark of night.
“You might as well pull your pick up truck and load them up,” she said. “They are not locked and they didn’t leave any water in either tree.”
The city also left behind the busted locks they broke that previously secured the tree, she said. “You really think I want broken locks back?”
The kicker, she quipped: There was a sign zip-tied to the tree that read “Merry Christmas from the city of San Clemente.”
“I ripped that sign right off,” she said. “I’m so livid. That’s just unbelievable.”
Sheldrake-Stetson, who grew up in San Clemente, got the idea for the community tree when she lived for a short time by the Rincon surf spot near Ventura about 15 years ago. She and her daughter planted a tiny tree there one year during the holidays. It was only big enough to hold two ornaments.
As the tree grew, so did community interest: Locals brought ornaments to decorate it each year.
After moving back to San Clemente, Sheldrake-Stetson hauled a tree during the cloak of night down to the sand at Calafia Beach.
She put a few ornaments on it to get it started, just a few bulbs from a dollar store. Then she posted on social media letting people know about the tree and encouraging them to bring ornaments.
Decorations soon started popping up – hundreds of them.
In the early years, she placed the tree between rocks lining the sand.
A few years later, state officials hauled the tree away, citing safety concerns.
That’s when she found a spot near the steps leading down to the beach, next to the railroad, where she could use a bike lock to affix the tree to a sign post. She said she made sure the sign wasn’t obstructed or the tree was in the way of the steps leading to her favorite surf spot.
Each year, the number of ornaments and visitors grew.
She has bags full of ornaments left through the years, and starts the tree off each year with some of her favorites. They are a mix as diverse at the community, everything from wine glass ornaments, to an American flag, others with a beach theme such as shells or sailboats.
Most years, there’s a tribute to Saylor Voris, a beloved San Clemente cheerleader who died of cancer at age 17 in 2015.
People on social media have been quick to rally emotions to support Sheldrake-Stetson and the tree, especially in a year that people need a little extra cheer.
“The messages that are coming in are heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time,” she said.
There’s one positive that has come out of it, she said.
“It seems like the community has really pulled together on this, it’s one thing everyone can agree on,” she said, “they love the tree and it brought so much joy to others.”
But she also wonders if the tree is worth it.
“It’s just so much drama, and that’s not what it’s about, at all,” she said, adding she hopes someone else will step up to carry on the tradition. “I think next year, I just wont do it. I’m just done fighting.”
Source: Orange County Register