This Christmas, Falcon Lee created a heavenly host of golden angels. With cotton ball heads and tiny halos, they take wing in his dining room, perched among a galaxy of shimmering silver stars.
“Watch this,” Lee said with an elfish grin as he gave his Christmas tree a gentle nudge. Amid a thousand twinkling lights, the angels and stars started spinning and bouncing, sending a cascade of reflected sparkles around the room.
“That’s what I love about this tree – the movement,” he said. “These are my ‘Angels in the Stars.’ ”
In his own time-consuming holiday tradition, Lee has mastered the zen of Christmas. He spends countless hours, twisting ribbon and cutting Mylar, to give his tree a personal touch.
“The tree makes me happy,” he explained. “Having a beautiful Christmas tree each year makes me happy. I host a party, but I don’t make the tree for the party – I do it for me.”
Since 1972, Lee has decorated a fresh-cut tree each Christmas with handmade decorations. Each year has a theme and its own imaginative mix of ornaments, almost all lovingly made by Lee.
Last year’s tree was “Heart to Heart,” with 13 dozen hearts made of red cellophane. Another year, Lee used his own heritage to create a “Chinatown” tree decked out with red paper lanterns, lucky red gift envelopes, golden dragons and tiny takeout boxes. His most memorable tree was covered with 1,001 folded-paper cranes, a colorful origami tribute to a lost friend.
“Several friends helped that year, folding these tiny cranes,” he said.
Another favorite tree was strung with large sequined ornaments, each sequin placed with a pin on Styrofoam balls. Lee used two pounds of pins – and buckets of sequins – to decorate the balls.
“When I started making my trees, I didn’t have money to buy fancy ornaments, so I made my own,” Lee said. “I still prefer to make my own.”
About 65 dozen ornaments are needed to fill his 10-foot white fir, he noted. Lee prefers silver tips and white firs, which he gets from an Apple Hill tree farm; the open branches allow for better display.
“That’s one of the trade secrets: Decorate all the way to the trunk,” he said. “It gives depth to the tree and makes a much better display. It’s better to over-decorate than under-decorate. But try to limit your color (scheme) to two colors, three colors max.”
Another tip: Use clear fishing line to give lower branches invisible support. “With all the ornaments, the branches start sagging,” he said. “This holds them up. That’s how the pros do it.”
Lee, 69 and retired, traces his tradition to an early job. In the mid-1960s, the San Francisco native apprenticed at Podesta Baldocchi, the famous San Francisco florist. The company’s Grant Street shop was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” Lee noted.
“Their Christmas trees were legendary, and people stood in line to look at their displays,” Lee said. “Working as a florist, you develop an eye. You see things differently.”
Lee intended to follow his passion and become a floral designer. But then, “Uncle Sam came calling,” he said. He was drafted by the Army and served two years in Vietnam.
After service, Lee returned to California. He became a state worker in Sacramento and settled into a Victorian home in Mansion Flats, within walking distance to his office and church.
He still fondly remembered the Baldocchi trees and florist’s “tricks of the trade” to make spectacular holiday displays. So each December, he created his own magic in his dining room.
“I took their tradition and began creating my own annual themed trees,” he said. “Each year, friends remark that the current year’s decorations are the most beautiful, pretty, wonderful, extraordinary or fantastic. The bar seems to be set higher and the decorations more elaborate each year.”
Besides a 4-foot-tall Santa, his Christmas tree stands next to a large Buddha, Chinese scrolls and cabinets of Chinese porcelain.
“That’s part of my history and culture,” he said. “I’m very Chinese, but it’s important to think broadly. I’m Catholic, but with my tree, I’m celebrating an American custom, not necessarily a religious holiday.”
Lee dismantles his tree in time to host January’s Chinese New Year, which he celebrates with about 30 family members and friends.
“On the last night before I take it down, I toast the tree,” he said. “I sit here in the dining room and admire it. With the lights, it really comes alive. I tell it, ‘You’re beautiful, too!’ ”