Nevada City’s Victorian Christmas returns for 40th year |

Nevada City’s Victorian Christmas returns for 40th year

Shoulder to shoulder people, viewed from the balcony of McGees Annex, enjoy the good weather during a Victorian Christmas in this 2003 archive photo.
The Union file photo |

Know & Go

What: Victorian Christmas

When: 1:30-6 p.m. Sundays from Dec. 3-17, 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays on Dec. 13, Dec. 20

Parking: Broad and Commercial streets closed to through traffic; a shuttle bus costs $5 for those 15 and older and leaves from the Rood Center, 950 Maidu Ave., 4:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesdays and noon-6:30 p.m. Sundays

For info: Call the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce at 530-265-2692 or go to

It doesn’t get much quainter than downtown Nevada City during Victorian Christmas.

The already picturesque streets get even more magical with a sprinkling of twinkling lights, carolers dressed in Victorian attire, street vendors hawking their wares, and even hot roasted chestnuts and horse-drawn carriage rides. While these are all traditional accompaniments to the holiday season, there is one long-standing Victorian Christmas tradition that is unique to Nevada City — the Walking Christmas Tree.

This over-the-top vision walks the streets of Nevada City each Victorian Christmas, handing out candy canes and posing for photos with her devoted fans.

“I never really gave it much thought,” said Nevada City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Whittlesey, admitting that initially she thought it was slightly strange. “But it is such a hit, all night long people want to take pictures with her.”

There actually have been three different Walking Christmas Trees over the last 36 years.

Diane Bishop pioneered the concept.

“Sunny O’Neil, a consultant for the Smithsonian (Institute) on the Victorian era, wrote an article in The Washington Post on the Victorian tradition of dressing up as Christmas Trees at parties,” Bishop told The Union in 2006. “They printed the pattern, and I made the costume with help from my mother.”

When Bishop moved to Nevada County in the early 1980s, she called Nevada City and offered her services as a walking Christmas Tree.

“They weren’t interested. They thought I was a nut,” Bishop said.

Then her mother got involved and told her, “Diane, anyone can go to Victorian Christmas and they can wear whatever they want. Just go.”

After about four years of her stealth tree persona, the chamber tracked her down and she began to be listed in the official publications as the Christmas Tree Lady.

Bishop left Nevada County in 2006 and Joan Girdler took up the mantle.

Becoming the tree requires stamina, commitment

Girdler said she had gone to see “Beach Blanket Babylon” in San Francisco years before, and one of the characters was dressed as a tree.

“I just thought, I want to be a tree — I would love to be a tree,” Girdler laughed.

So, she said, when she found out that Bishop was moving, she seized her opportunity.

“I sketched out an outfit and an ex-Disney costume maker put it together for me,” Girdler said.

“I had a wonderful time,” she mused. “There was always a different feel on the street every year. Some years, people wanted to hug me. If you’re a tree, they know you’re a person but you’re not totally a person. So you’re safe to talk to. They just wanted to have a hug; it was quite heartwarming.”

Eventually, though, Girdler decided it was too much of a commitment.

“I do kind of miss it,” she said. “People love the tree.”

Cindy Moon, who works for the Chamber, will be the Walking Christmas Tree for her fourth season this year.

She made her tree costume with her sister’s help, tweaking and improving it each year.

“I used to get a horrible headache because the headpiece was so heavy,” Moon said.

So last year a friend rigged it so it’s not actually on her head anymore. The full outfit is actually multiple pieces, including a hoop skirt to make the bottom flare out, “lots of ornaments” and LED batteries for the Christmas tree lights.

“I can’t even get dressed by myself,” Moon said.

Every year people approach her to get their photos taken with her and say it’s part of their Victorian Christmas tradition.

“I love being the tree,” she said. “You would think it would be the kids (who get most excited), but it’s the adults. They’re just so happy.”

New this year, Moon’s husband Jim — who has been her candy cane supplier and photo taker in past years — will take a more active role, dressed as a Toy Soldier.

“He has watched me for so many years and seen the joy,” Moon said. “He’s really excited — he will definitely stand out.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at

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