Christmas at the Lighthouse Through the Years

By Kathy Mastako

The holidays will probably look different this year. Gatherings will likely be smaller, parties few to none, cherished traditions upended by the pandemic. Mulling this over made me wonder what Christmas must have been like for the folks stationed at an isolated outpost like the Point San Luis Lighthouse. How did the keepers and their families make merry?

Old records, news articles, and oral histories give us a glimpse into Christmas festivities at the lighthouse through the years and how those who lived there celebrated the season.

Newly widowed Keeper William Smith and his four teenage children celebrated Christmas Eve 1907 in town, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. W. A. Bowden on Islay Street in SLO. Bowden was a prominent local citizen—county president of the Anti-Saloon League and, in 1911, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in the city’s first election under its new charter. The local paper described how the ceilings of the Bowden home were decorated with pepper trees and holly branches hung on wires, with mistletoe tucked into the foliage at each entrance. Presents like bananas, apples, oranges, boxes of candy, toys, and souvenirs dangled from the wires. Each guest and gift were given a number, and guests “derived much merriment” searching for their gift. A spur-of-the-moment orchestra provided “excellent music,” with Miss Margaret Bowden at the piano, Master Wayne Bowden on the violin, and Mrs. Malcolm Rolls on the cornet.

In 1925, students at the Port schoolhouse put up their tree and celebrated Christmas, including songs and recitations by Dorothy Watters, daughter of head Keeper George Watters, and Lira and Blaine Streeter, children of assistant keeper George Streeter. The students enjoyed refreshments and received gifts, and Mrs. Angela Marre, widow of rancher Luigi Marre and owner of the Hotel Marre, joined in the fun. 

Holiday celebrations for Keeper Watters and his family in 1928 included taking in the Spanish-American War Veterans’ Christmas entertainment in SLO. 

Antonio Silva, long-serving assistant keeper, kept Christmas in 1931 by traveling with his wife, Laura, to San Jose to visit Mrs. Silva’s niece, Ida (née Gregory) Silveira. Ida was one of the dozen or so children raised by John and Mamie Gregory on Smith Island in Port San Luis harbor. Head Keeper Fred Saunders took his Christmas dinner that year at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Simpson. Simpson was an agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company; he and his wife had their living quarters in a section of the warehouse on Harford pier.

The students at San Luis High held their 1937 Christmas formal in the school cafeteria, transforming it into a toy shop with “mirthful murals” and a silver tree. Lucy Moorefield, the stepdaughter of head Keeper Bob Moorefield, designed the programs featuring Santa Claus with a cotton mustache and beard.

 “Christmas was such a big deal in our extremely private life. Christmas was magical,” Lucy recalled.

“We always hoped for a big storm at Christmas. We liked the feeling of the elements swirling around outside and being snug and cozy inside…We always celebrated with our immediate family. We never celebrated with the family in San Luis Obispo, as it was too far away and usually the weather was inclement. We just liked to have a nice quiet private affair. The other keepers had their own celebrations.”

In 1944, during World War II, servicemen stationed in the Avila vicinity were entertained during the holidays by members of the San Luis Obispo Yacht Club at their Avila clubhouse. About fourteen yacht clubbers played host to the men, with Charles Berkemeyer playing Santa Claus and distributing gifts. After the shore party, the Yacht Club members went by boat to three military ships docked offshore, bringing gifts and refreshments aboard, then continued to the lighthouse leaving gifts and refreshments there, too. Berkemeyer was no stranger to the lighthouse. He had served for a time aboard the lighthouse service tender ship Madrona which delivered supplies to lighthouses from San Diego to Alaska.

Santa did a flyover in 1953, dropping gifts at Point San Luis. The five Coast Guardsmen manning the light station were each dropped a package containing razor blades, cigars, cigarettes, and books. On December 22, 1953, the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune reported:

“The high-flying Santa Claus, Edward Rowe Stowe, Marshfield, Mass., has been at his self-appointed rounds for the past 17 years. Every Christmas, he flies over the lonely lighthouses and coast guard stations, showering every navigational outpost with presents…His appearance over the Avila coast guard station yesterday was a complete surprise to the men stationed there, although they knew about the project of Snow. The big [bomber patrol] swooped low over the Avila station, and on its second pass, the five packages began falling out, all dropping within a 60-foot radius. The bundles were shock-packed, and no parachutes were needed in their direct fall to earth. With no more ado, the plane soared off southward, continuing its disguise as a propeller-driven sleigh. The officer in charge of the station, John Schulz, and his aides, quickly gathered up their presents, smiling their pleasant surprise skyward toward the horizon beyond which the plane had already disappeared.”

To celebrate the festive season this year, Point San Luis is offering docent-led interactive Virtual Holiday Tours. Guests will travel back in time to December 1890, explore the Keeper’s dwelling beautifully adorned with old-fashioned ornaments and trim, climb to the top of the lighthouse tower, step inside the fog signal building, visit the spectacular Fresnel lens and see it see the flash from the tower’s lantern. Tours use Zoom, begin every Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m., and last about an hour. Purchase tickets at My805Tix or call (805)540-5771 (email Private virtual tours can also be arranged; call or email for details.

Point San Luis Lighthouse is offering docent-led Virtual Holiday Tours. Viewers can see it decked out with old-fashioned ornaments from the 1890s. Photos courtesy of Kathy Mastako