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Courthouse decorating a Merced community tradition

For those wondering what Christmas decorations might have looked like in the late 1800s, look no farther than Merced County's historic courthouse.

Sarah Lim, Merced County Courthouse Museum director, said at least 50 community groups have spread the festive holiday spirit over the 1875-vintage courthouse near downtown Merced. Holiday decorations at the museum have been a community tradition for more than 30 years.

"It looks very festive and beautiful," Lim said. "It's a lot of work, but it's worth it. It has a community Christmas feeling because so many people participate. There is nothing comparable in Merced County."

Lim said this is the biggest exhibit ever with about 70 trees planned. To commemorate its 10th anniversary, representatives of the University of California, Merced campus also will decorate a holiday tree in the three-story Italianate-style courthouse.

The museum director estimates several hundred people are involved in the Christmas decorations. The courthouse is located at 21st and N streets.

Many of the organizations' artificial Christmas trees have vintage or homemade ornaments. One of the feature exhibits is a winter village designed by Beverly Evans of Merced, set up in the Superior Court chambers. Each year visitors are challenged to find Santa Claus among all the decorations.

Evans has put up a tree for about 10 years. Changing "Winter Wonderland" and "Small Town America" themes encompass the decorations. There are mountains in the background and a small town with stores and houses. 

It takes Evans and her grandchildren about three days to set up her exhibit but only three hours to take it down. She said it's one of the highlights of her year. 

The Museum Committee core group starts planning in mid-November and  bringing in their trees. Each tree has a different theme, designed to publicize their organization, showcase art work or show love of country and animals, Lim explained. 

Jan Sorge of Merced is involved in decorating four trees, one is for the local Habitat for Humanity group and another with high school volunteers who work at Mercy Medical Center, Merced. Another tree represents children's outreach and another is with a Red Hat Society group.

Sorge said she has been involved in the project for about 10 years and said the atmosphere is beautiful.
Durell Ewing is a museum docent. Her group has been contributing a yule tree for several years. Their decorations include cornucopias, flowers and sequins, gems and scrapbook materials. "It's a lot of fun; it truly is," Ewing said. "It's pretty awesome. The trees the community brings in are getting more beautiful each year."

Activities culminate in the Annual Christmas Open House at the Courthouse Museum Dec. 6 from 1 to 4 p.m. All three floors will be decorated. 

Live entertainment will be provided by the Central Presbyterian Church Handbell Choir, Catlin's Suzuki Violin Studio, Harmony Valley Chorus and the Cruickshank Middle School Tiger Choir.

Lim said last year more than 700 people attended the open house. One of the traditions is the serving of cookies and the secret recipe eggnog. There is a treasure hunt for children.

"It's a wonderful way to kick off the holiday celebration," Lim said.

The courthouse is normally open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.