Sitting in lawn chairs or on the back of pickup trucks, locals in San Juan Bautista came out on Friday for the annual bonfire and Christmas celebration where Santa Claus and his elves gave out gifts to excited children of all ages.
“When I was little, for every San Juan kid, this was the main event of the year,” said San Juan resident and San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho, as he looked over the pile of wooden pallets and green waste piled high at a vacant lot on First Street. The pile would be consumed in fire within minutes.
The nighttime event is a San Juan tradition, harking back to the 1920s when local benefactors distributed gifts to all the children in town. “The people that originally started it, there were rumors as to who they were, but we never really knew,” said Rosie Cortez, who attended the bonfire with daughter, Yesenia, and her two dogs, Mylo and Monte. All were wrapped up warmly in thick sweaters and blankets as they watched the fire’s flames grow higher and higher. Cortez said decades ago the bonfire was fueled by an assortment of items. “One year they had couches, sofas, mattresses, so there was a lot of black smoke. Then there was talk about stopping it.”
Botelho remembers those bygone years. “Everyone in town used to bring stuff down and it got a bit out of hand,” he said. Now the bonfire is made up of wooden pallets from the Hollister school district and garden waste from the nearby mission grounds.
As the bonfire raged and then simmered down, a fire truck siren could be heard approaching. Santa Claus!
“Santa Claus rides in on the fire engine,” said Cortez. “Back then he would ride through each street and end up at the center.”
The thrill of meeting old Saint Nick and walking away with a treasure trove of goodies has not dampened over the years. A line of kids waited excitedly outside the community hall on San Jose Street while inside local boy scouts and members of the San Juan Bautista Service Club got all the presents ready. More than 200 gift bags were distributed.
“When I was about 13, they had all the kids line up by age,” Cortez continued. “The babies would get presents, then four, five and six year old kids—all the way up to teenagers. Everyone would get a gift. You would get a bag full of candy, oranges, a picture with Santa and a full-size doll or aluminum truck—they were really nice gifts.”
Cortez said even when it was raining local kids would huddle inside nearby parked cars, waiting for Santa Claus. “When my kids were little we moved to San Jose but I would still bring them to San Juan because my parents were here.”
Local residents, Rick and Mary Morales, said the bonfire is a city tradition.
“It’s been going on for years. It hasn’t really changed. Everyone comes out,” said Rick Morales.