TAMPA — Every Friday, from the first weekend after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, Robert Floyd’s parents took him and neighborhood friends on station wagon drives to see light displays.
The highlight, he said, was the arrival of the two-mile stretch of Bayshore Boulevard adorned with large handmade Christmas displays from mid-December through the end of the month.
It was called Christmas Card Lane and, each year, from its inception through its demise, hundreds of thousands of visitors contributed to the holiday traffic jam on Tampa’s most scenic road.
“You would idle along Bayshore in a long procession of cars looking at the many displays put up by local companies, service clubs, high school art departments, etc.,” said Floyd, 74. “Looking back on it, I remember the experience more than any individual display.”
But he wondered, how did it begin and why did it end.
The tradition was born 75 years ago this holiday season. Or maybe it was 74 years ago or 83. Then again, it could be even older if you count the displays that inspired the tradition. The beginning is a matter of opinion.
But its inspiration is not up for debate. That distinction goes to Fernando Mesa.
By the early 1930s, the interior designer and Junior Chamber of Commerce member was known citywide for his love of all things Yuletide. The annual Christmas parties held at his family’s Tampa Heights home were a highlight of the holiday season due to the Christmas displays he built throughout the residence.
Those not lucky enough to be invited could still enjoy Mesa’s artistry. He turned the front yard into a tourist attraction by erecting large Christmas scenes.
In 1938, the Junior Chamber, also known as the Jaycees, asked Mesa to take his talents to Bayshore Boulevard.
At the foot of Hyde Park Avenue that year, he erected three displays — a 7-foot candle, a nativity scene with the three wise men, and a Christmas tree being visited by Santa Claus in a sled pulled by the eight reindeer.
That corner included a display for the next three years.
Then, in 1947, the Jaycees announced a grander plan.
The Jaycees invited businesses and civic organizations to sponsor up to 50 presentations in the form of Christmas cards that would span the Davis Islands Bridge to Rome Avenue. Sponsors could create the displays on their own or the Jaycees could find artists for them. Mesa would oversee it all.
“The display will be known as Christmas Card Lane,” the Tampa Tribune wrote on Oct. 16, 1947, marking the first time the title was publicized.
Three weeks later, the inaugural Christmas Card Lane was canceled.
“Because most firms had already set up their Christmas advertising budgets, the Jaycees were unable to obtain sufficient backing of displays to make it worthwhile,” the Tampa Tribune reported. “The organization will seek sponsors at an earlier date next year in hopes of a Christmas Card Lane for 1948.”
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Christmas Card Lane did successfully launch the following year with 20 wooden displays that included a manger scene set within a modern New England town, a two-dimensional Statue of Liberty hovering over an adult Jesus with an electrified halo, and a depiction of midnight mass in Brazil.
In 1953, the Tampa Garden Club added to the festivities by decorating a 75-foot Australian Pine that was heralded as the second largest living Christmas tree in the nation. It was decorated with 1,460 lights.
A decade later, the displays abandoned wood for fiberglass and became three-dimensional.
“Gaping children and wide-eyed adults can expect to see such giant displays this year as Santa descending down a chimney, as his sleigh and reindeer wait on the snowy rooftop and his golden castle glows in the background,” the Tampa Tribune wrote, “and a Santa’s workshop, where animated Santa’s helpers busily turn out toys.”
By the late 1960s, the displays were created primarily by high schoolers. In 1970, Brandon High School erected 19 of the 22 cards.
A snowball fight was held along Christmas Card Lane in 1976, made possible by more than 1,000 pounds of real snow flown in.
But the tradition became less of a tradition by the end of that decade. It moved from Bayshore Boulevard and was minimized.
In 1981, the cards were erected in front of the downtown county courthouse.
And, in 1983, the scenes were built to fit on a tabletop, again in front of the courthouse. That appears to be the last incarnation of the Christmas Card Lane.
Since then, other organizations and area cities have created their own Christmas Card Lane at various sites, but none have recaptured the popularity of the Jaycees’ version on Bayshore Boulevard.
When Mesa died in 2012, his obituary cited Christmas Card Lane as among his greatest accomplishments.
“Back then, just getting out and going somewhere at Christmastime was exciting to a kid in the pre-video game era,” Floyd said. “Sometimes, when we got to the end, dad would turn around and go back to the beginning and we’d go through it again.”
This story contains information from Tampa Bay Times archives.