San Mateo County History Museum celebrates worldwide holidays


Erik Cheng

Museum Education Intern Carrie Welters teaches visitors about Shogatsu Japanese New Year, and how to make materials for Hanetsuki, a racquet ball game played by Japanese children during New Year’s celebrations.

Visitors of the San Mateo County History Museum will be able to explore the holidays at “Holiday Traditions from Around the World.”

Opening on Dec. 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the event is located in the rotunda or main room of the museum. Deputy Director Carmen Blair and her team organized the occasion.

Gathering ideas from cultures around the world, Blair and her team developed craft activities of culturally significant items. These items, targeted toward children aged 2 to 12, reflect common games and traditions that children from other cultures do to celebrate the holidays. 

“This year, we will be exploring Sweden’s Santa Lucia, Hanukkah, Japanese New Year, Kwanzaa, Filipino Christmas, Mexican New Year, and Portuguese New Year,” Blair said. 

Once finished, children are encouraged to explore the rest of the museum and learn more about the county and its history from the exhibits ranging from a memorial to fallen police officers to a surfing simulator.

Running each station are shifts of helpers ranging from museum staff, such as Carlmont alumni Carrie Welters, to local volunteers.

Aside from the craft activities, the museum staff partnered with the College of San Mateo to host a free concert called “Swinging into the Holidays” at the museum, featuring local student musicians. (Erik Cheng)

“Most of the crafts here represent the immigrant groups coming to the county in large numbers. These kids are making crafts that highlight the cultures of their neighbors, classmates, or future coworkers and clients. We’re having them explore something different from what they’re familiar with but might be integral to someone close to them,” Welter said. 

Blair, who has organized the event every other year since 2002, utilizes her museum exhibits to inspire new activities for her event. 

“We put together a permanent exhibit in 2006 called the Land of Opportunity: The Immigrant Experience in San Mateo County. From our research, I’ve gathered a nice file of how holidays are celebrated worldwide. Then, as we continue to plan our events, we revisit some of the favorite activities and add new ones each time,” Blair said. 

The Land of Opportunity exhibit sits above the rotunda, enticing visitors with arrangements of clothing, tools, and photographs of the immigrants that came to the United States and the role they played in the county’s development. Nevertheless, the exhibit also acknowledges the challenges that immigrants had to face. It encourages visitors to read about discrimination and share their experiences using a video recording and interactive map. 

A large mural within the San Mateo County History Museum’s Land of Opportunity exhibit uses depictions of hands to illustrate the role of immigrants and different ethnic groups in the county’s development. (Erik Cheng)

Blair and her fellow museum executives felt compelled to open such an exhibit because of the rich and diverse demographic of museum visitors. 

“In 1820, 2010, and 2020, one-third of the population of San Mateo County was born in another country. These immigrants brought a variety of holiday traditions that are still celebrated as a way to remember the culture of their homeland,” Blair said. “I could concentrate on Christmas alone, but because our county is so culturally diverse, I do like to take a look at some of these other holiday celebrations that might not be familiar to everyone.” 

According to the United States Census Bureau, the population of San Mateo County in 2020 was estimated to be over 730,000. However, because of space, Blair’s event is limited in how many cultural celebrations it can highlight. Given that certain races have multiple different subcultures, Blair explicitly chooses more indoor-oriented activities. Larger celebrations and traditions are usually handled by the larger outdoor festival hosted by the City of Redwood City, known as Hometown Holidays. 

Sadly, due to heavy rain in the area, attendance was lower than in previous years. Rain poured onto the central courtyard, forcing Hometown Holidays to be largely postponed. Despite being soaked in rainwater, parents and children alike enjoyed the museum. Tink Reynoso, a Woodside High School graduate, explored the other exhibits while his eight-year-old daughter did her crafts projects. 

“I want my daughter to experience the events and history of San Mateo County. I think it’s important to any community to learn about everybody’s culture and history. It helps bring people together. She’s getting old enough to put things together, and since I’m homeschooling her, I want her to feel connected with the entire county,” Reynoso said. “My grandfather is in the San Mateo County Hall of Fame, and I was born and raised here, so I want her to feel just as connected as I was.” 

Ultimately, despite being a holiday event, Welter believes that the arts and crafts activities genuinely push the boundaries of the holiday season to celebrate the community. 

“These events we host, like Dia de Los Muertos, Lunar New Year, and this one, are accessible. That’s our goal with the museum. Adult tickets are $6, and this event is free, so it’s flexible for people that aren’t as well off, financially,” Welter said. “I believe that this event is more representative of non-Western and non-Christian cultural practices, and it really combats the regular, American, holiday advertising. This is not just ‘Christmas time.’ This is really a ‘holiday time’ for everyone.”