OVER A Century of Giving
Over a hundred years ago, in 1912, a Berkeley banker tapped “the Berkeley Spirit” to begin one of the city’s most enduring traditions. The effort he founded has had several names--the Christmas Committee, the Christmas Fund, and now, the Berkeley Holiday Fund—but its purpose has remained true to its founder’s original goal: to provide a way for generous Berkeley residents to brighten the holidays of their fellow citizens.
The Berkeley Christmas Committee was born when Jo Mills, a prominent figure in the early life of the city, organized the first municipal Christmas Celebration, a large-scale pageant put on for the people of the city and held originally in the Harmon gym, later in the Greek Theatre. Civic organizations, the public schools, and numerous churches participated in the event. By 1936, the pageant had grown to a gigantic colorful spectacle with 800 children and 200 adults. Not only did it entertain, it also raised funds which, augmented by donations from the Berkeley community, were used to provide gifts of clothing, blankets, food and toys for needy families.
Jo Mills, sometimes described as ‘The Santa Claus of Berkeley,’ died in 1935 and, with the advent of war, the pageant ceased to exist; but the work of the Christmas Committee continued. Betty Hall, secretary of the organization for more than thirty years, kept a legendary collection of boxes with the names of over 20,000 potential donors and enlisted the help of local boy scouts to address the envelopes each December. Eventually, it became apparent that the system of giving gifts in kind was no longer practical. The Fund became non-profit and donations were distributed as checks sent directly to needy recipients. In 1992, wishing to be more inclusive, and to acknowledge the diversity of the Berkeley population, the committee changed its name to the Berkeley Holiday Fund.
From the outset the Fund was supported by the Mayor and members of the City Council, and their support continues with the Mayor acting as Honorary Chair and covering the cost of mailing the checks to recipients. Those in need of assistance were originally identified by a variety of sources including churches and schools; today the Fund relies on 25 social service agencies, including the Health Department, senior centers, Head Start, BOSS, and the Center for Independent Living. The Mechanics Bank cashes checks free of charge for recipients. The Fund has no office, no paid staff, just a board of enthusiastic volunteers.
A bequest from James M. Kaye, a former board member, enables the Fund to respond to urgent requests from agencies throughout the year, providing checks for up to $200 to meet specific, one-time needs for agency clients.
Last year the Fund sent checks to almost 1,100 recipients, a total disbursement of approximately $75,000. Times have changed, but the Berkeley Holiday Fund remains an old-fashioned kitchen-table charity whose modest donations to families and individuals in need continue the tradition begun over a hundred years ago by Jo Mills. The legendary “Berkeley Spirit” remains strong.