Neighbors Martin Gewing (left) and Ben Marin with Marin's venerable streetside Santa display.
Neighbors Martin Gewing (left) and Ben Marin with Marin's venerable streetside Santa display.

Take down beloved Santa display? Not on this Jew’s watch!

A Vallejo resident and his Jewish neighbor say it may have been the spirit of the season that saved a roadside Christmas display that dated back nearly 50 years.

In truth, it was likely a stream of phone calls from residents, including Martin Gewing, a lay leader at Congregation B’nai Israel in Vallejo, that kept the display from being taken down, a city official said.

A Facebook post by Gewing titled “Save Our Santa!” recapped how the city was threatening to dismantle his neighbor’s display of lights over a wooden Santa Claus. Gewing and the neighbor, Ben Marin, were told that despite the display being set up every year for 48 years, with nary a complaint, it’s on city property and therefore, technically, illegal.

“Ben has lived on Seaview Court since his house was built … in about 1972,” wrote Gewing. “Every year he attaches Santa to the city light pole, and [up to now] no one has said anything. Now Ben is over 89 years old, and the Public Works Department came by so they could tell [him] that Santa has to come down.”

Explained Patrick Hutchinson of the Vallejo Public Works Department: “You can’t have private stuff on city property, and that pole is a city facility.”

When the city workers showed up on Dec. 9 to remove the display, Gewing appealed to them to abort their efforts, and they did, though they said they’d return the next day to take it down.

I’m Jewish, and I’m helping to save Santa. The spirit works in mysterious ways.

That’s when Gewing took to Facebook, adding to his post the department’s phone number and a plea for people to make phone calls.

William Roberts of Public Works Department said officials changed their mind about removing the display after hearing the background story.

“My supervisor said we’re checking for tripping hazards, but we’re leaving it alone because we want to be part of the community,” Roberts said. “And since it’s been up so long, it’s become like a tradition.”

Marin and Gewing say they consider it something of a holiday miracle.

And then there’s the fact that Marin’s main champion in the battle to save Santa was someone who occasionally leads services at B’nai Israel.

“I’m Jewish, and I’m helping to save Santa,” Gewing said. “The spirit works in mysterious ways.”

Marin, who is of Filipino heritage, is a married father of three, grandfather of three and great-grandfather of one. He also built a three-story treehouse in his backyard with an elevator in deference to his aging knees.

“He’s my go-to guy when I need help fixing something around the house,” Gewing said.

Marin, who said he doesn’t understand the concept of anti-Semitism, didn’t realize the role the Philippines played in helping save Jews from the Holocaust until Gewing told him about it.

As for the “saving” of Santa, Gewing said, “It’s wonderful. It’s good to build bridges and to be compassionate, especially this time of year.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."