The act of selecting and decorating a Christmas tree requires more than just a string of lights, a few ornaments and a couple of hours of free time for Los Altos residents Marian and Cyndel Podich.
When it comes to this mother-daughter duo’s annual family ritual, the use of a large pickup truck and a group of eight – if not more – strong, able-bodied friends is typically required. That’s because the Podiches annually select a tree tall enough to rival the White House tree at 18- to 19-feet tall. The entire operation, according to the family, includes the use of a pulley system to hoist the tree into place inside the family’s art studio.
What’s more, the family’s efforts to decorate the tree can take nearly a month to achieve, as the two women work to hang nearly 3,500 ornaments – some created by them, others gifted by friends. Cyndel said the operation requires more than 1,100 feet of 19- to 22-gauge steel wire to stabilize limbs to bear the weight of elaborate holiday vignettes accumulated by the family throughout nearly six decades.
The annual tradition is an art form in itself for the two women, who spend countless hours creatively mapping out the tree’s overall look each season.
“It takes a while to get going. … We negotiate, visualize, argue, fantasize and then agree on, ‘Oh yeah, let’s start with this,’” said Cyndel, who runs her own sculpting and painting art studio. “We have color flow, and we think about balance when it comes to size, shape and color. Essentially, we create a Christmas sculpture every year. It’s a three-dimensional Christmas sculpture where you utilize pretty much the same elements, but in different places (on the tree) every year.”
A modest beginning
The Podichs’ tradition is a far cry from its more humble beginnings in 1957, when Marian and her husband, Nick, built the family art studio as an add-on to the home they purchased two years earlier. There was only one problem – the studio’s street-side window offered little to no privacy for the family.
“There was no window covering, so we got the tree for 75 cents the day of Christmas Eve, late at night,” said Marian, an 88-year-old local piano teacher.
Unlike the family’s formal Christmas tree in the home’s living room, the studio tree also offered Cyndel and her brother, Marty, the opportunity to use their artistic talents and decorate it to their hearts’ content.
“We called it the ‘fun tree,’ as opposed to our formal tree,” Cyndel noted. “Over time, the cost of trees went up to buy two, the interest in the fun tree increased and it just made sense to only have the fun tree.”
And while the tree gained popularity among family members, it also gained height – and an increasingly elaborate setup to boot.
“Over the years, the tree kept getting a little taller and a little taller, until it touched the ceiling,” said Cyndel. “The trees started to get really large in the 1960s. The ornaments started to get really large in the 1970s.”
An event for all
These days, the family’s tradition has taken on a life of its own. Around mid-November each holiday season, the mother-daughter pair and a group of more than a dozen friends and family take an annual trek to the Santa Cruz Mountains and make an entire day out of selecting a tree. The event itself – which includes a picnic at the same tree farm the family has patronized for more than 40 years – has also become a ritual.
“For many people, it’s not only the start of the holiday season, it is their holiday thing,” Cyndel noted. “I have a friend living in Arizona who comes and spends Christmas with us every year. This is her Christmas. Other people don’t buy a tree – they just come and enjoy ours.”
Marian added that the group usually contains someone new to the tradition. She distinctly recalled chatting up friends she’d made on a cruise several years ago about her Christmas tree tradition. Lo and behold, she noted, those new friends drove up from Los Angeles to “join the party” soon after.
For Cyndel, seeing the reactions of first-time viewers makes the three to four weeks of preparation worth all the trouble. That includes Marian’s piano students. Each year, the duo races against the clock to complete the tree ahead of Marian’s annual piano recital held at the studio in mid-December.
“It’s a labor of love for ourselves that we enjoy sharing,” said Cyndel, who in recent years created a watering system to accommodate the large trees, including using several feet of PVC piping and a baby video monitor. “I so enjoy looking at somebody’s face when they come in to see the tree for the first time, because you can tell somebody it’s 18-and-a-half feet (tall), but it doesn’t register. … People are just dumbstruck.”
“It’s a big deal for them to be able to see it,” Marian added.
The nearly monthlong task of decorating the tree with decades-old ornaments, figurines and other elements also affords the women a chance to reminisce about the family’s past – including recalling memories of Nick and Marty Podich, who have since passed away.
“When do you get to spend three weeks with your family reliving, enjoying, reminiscing?” Cyndel asked. “It’s when you pick up something that somebody gave you once – and maybe that person is no longer alive – and you say, ‘Remember when so and so gave us that ornament?’ You reminisce, and the whole history of gathering all of the elements gets relived.”
Marian and Cyndel said they plan to continue the tradition for the foreseeable future.
“As long as we’re breathing and still moving around, that’s the plan,” Cyndel said. “It will be a really sad day when we can’t do it.”