Garage sale find inspires Astoria Christmas Club and a promise

 Astoria Christmas club

Holiday decorations along Commercial Street in Astoria, Oregon, Monday, November 27, 2023. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

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Tim O’Bryant was 5 years old when his parents relocated from Pendleton to Astoria in 1960. O’Bryant remembers those first days, nose pressed to the window, wondering if it would ever stop raining. Then came winter, and the surprise of color and light.

“All of the sudden Christmas came to Astoria,” O’Bryant recalled. “I had never seen anything like it -- bells, garlands. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is beautiful.’” But it wasn’t to last. By 1966, the crews responsible for hanging the decorations stopped, and Astoria was gray again.

It would be another 30 years before O’Bryant stumbled upon an amazing find and made an equally amazing promise that to this day sees Astoria lit every holiday season in a show of light.

It all started in 1996 when O’Bryant, a UPS driver, was out on his route.

“I saw this garage sale,” O’Bryant, now retired, said. “And I saw a couple of those bells and a lantern.” The homeowner confirmed they were the decorations O’Bryant recalled from childhood. He was asking $35 for each. O’Bryant asked if he had any more and as it turned out, he did – a whopping 70. O’Bryant did the math – 70 x $35 = $2,450 for the lot. “I thought, I want them, but do I want them that bad?’ I went back the next day and I said, ‘Do you remember Astoria in the ‘60s?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah.’ I said, ‘You sell them to me for $100 and I’ll put them up.’ I’ve kept my word; the decorations have been going up every year since.”

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 Astoria Christmas club

Holiday decorations at the Liberty Theater, 1203 Commercial Street, Astoria, Oregon, Monday, November 27, 2023. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

 Astoria Christmas club

Holiday decorations along Commercial Street in Astoria, Oregon, Monday, November 27, 2023. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

That first year, it was just O’Bryant and his wife, Melba. They borrowed a bucket truck from local business Wadsworth Electric and hung the decorations after Tim O’Bryant got off work.

“I tried to remember what it looked like when I was 6 or 7 and that’s how I decorated,” O’Bryant said. “I was working on stuff downtown at 8 at night. People didn’t know who was doing it and so they started called me Mr. Christmas and Melba, Mrs. Christmas.”

That was the last time the couple worked alone. In the coming years, they were joined by crews from the Astoria Fire Department, Pacific Power and Wadsworth Electric, along with volunteers from local businesses and the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association. “People just loved it,” O’Bryant recalled. “A lot of the old-timers said it was exactly the way it was when they were younger.”

Soon, O’Bryant’s childhood friend Kent Birdeno signed on to help. A small business owner, Birdeno was savvy about finances and suggested they send out fliers telling people what they were up to.

“I said, ‘Kent, I don’t know if this is going to work,’” O’Bryant recalled. He said, “‘Trust me.’ All of the sudden the money started pouring in, thousands.” But the crew of volunteers, which numbers about 40 today, still didn’t have a name. Then one day while O’Bryant was up on a roof putting up decorations, he got a call from a reporter from the local newspaper.

“They said, ‘What is the name of your group?’” I said, ‘Uh …’” And then, the words just came, “I said, ‘Christmas Club.’ So that’s how that one came.”

The Christmas Club now operates under the nonprofit Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, but still funds their efforts solely through donations. Thanks largely to LED bulbs, the decorating task has gotten easier over the years. “I used to use vacation time to work on the decorations. They take a beating; you know the weather around here. The garland is about 85 feet long and you have eight garlands, and half the bulbs would be out. Before, we’d be changing lights forever. Now, we laugh about it. We might have one bulb out; we used to have 40.”

 Astoria Christmas club

Holiday decorations along Commercial Street in Astoria, Oregon, Monday, November 27, 2023. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

Volunteers hang the decorations the week before Thanksgiving, working in crews around town over a span of about four blocks. Birdeno leads the crew in charge of lighting the shrubs and trees.

“All kinds of stuff has happened over the years,” Birdeno said. “The guy was helping me one rainy day, stringing lights up on a building. A bare wire was exposed and he touched it. Zap. He said, ‘OK, I’m done for the day.’ Another time a crew was working on 10th and this guy leans a ladder against the post and the post snaps and down it comes and goes straight through a plate glass window. We’ve had instances where people have stopped traffic to let us cross the street and boom, someone rear ends them.’”

Once the decorations are hung, volunteers spend the week making sure all the glitches are worked out. Then, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association hosts the Downtown Holiday Lighting ceremony. Santa comes to town, there’s free cocoa and cookies, and after the mayor gives the countdown, the city once again shines bright.

In the coming weeks, local businesses will take part in holiday-themed promotions, including a winter window decorating contest. Santa listens to wishes from his seat in the Liberty Theater and vendors set up the Astoria Holiday Market on three consecutive Sundays at the Astoria Armory.

“I wouldn’t say Astoria overdoes it, but we definitely go all in,” said Jessamyn Grace West, executive director of the downtown association. “We have an historic downtown, and it’s a really beautiful place to visit or spend the holidays. People decorate their houses. Some decorate their boats. People are so happy to come together and support each other. We’re a close community and I think that really shows during the holiday.”

— Lori Tobias, for The Oregonian/OregonLive

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