Kristin Bertrand was riding bikes with her mother Sharon Sunday afternoon along the Sonoma Bike Path when a sign near the Gen. Vallejo Home and a flurry of activity beyond the fence caught her eye.
Struck by a chord of nostalgia, the 32-year-old district sales manager for Zale's Jewelry made an abrupt turn in to the parking lot, parked her two-wheeler and joined several hundred kids, parents and state parks volunteers merrily making Christmas crafts in the courtyard of the historic home of Sonoma's most famous town father.
"I remember making these," she said, grinning while going through the familiar motions of weaving wet straw into a tiny basket.
Bertrand, who now lives in Walnut Creek, said she just felt powerfully compelled to stop, driven by fond memories of coming, with her three siblings, to the Vallejo House each November to make objects from another era.
Unseasonably warm weather drew more than 400 people to The Victorian Christmas Crafts Workshop, a 24-year-tradition in Sonoma. It's where kids for a few hours can ditch their electronic toys and have the experience of making ornaments, decorations and gifts that become little family heirlooms — rose sachets out of tulle net, cornucopias out of construction paper, fans out of wallpaper and lace, and of course, hand-woven straw baskets.
Many kids come back year after year, turning their family Christmas trees into "totem poles of their endeavors," said Averil Anderson, a volunteer for more than 15 years.
"Children can get involved in doing something," she said, "rather than sitting in front of something."
Eighteen crafts stations were set up along the edges of the courtyard and on the grass, the yellow Gothic Vallejo home as a backdrop, with bright green shutters and dripping gingerbread trim. For a small fee of 25 cents to $1, kids could use hand tools, frosting, glitter and glue to make everything from wooden candlesticks to miniature wreaths, bookmarks and gingerbread cookies.
Some 30 volunteers staffed the stations, many in lacy Victorian costumes.They showed kids born into the digital age how to make Christmas cheer the way their great-great grandparents did a century ago.
"You can learn to do different stuff and things you've never done before," said Frankie Bonilla, 8, who came with a friend and fellow third grader all the way from Roseville.
Put on by the Sonoma/Petaluma State Parks Association, the event is now drawing a new generation of parents who remember coming as kids and want their own children to experience the simple joy of making with their own hands something they can feel proud of.
"I love seeing my daughter not on her phone," said Jason Winslow, a psychiatric technician assistant at Sonoma Developmental Center who has come every year since he was in the third grade. This year he volunteered with his daughters Akacia, 11 and Kaitlynn, 8, helping kids make colorful ornaments with bent wire and beads.
"It's really a lovely time, seeing all the children and parents and volunteers talking and laughing."
Kaitlynn, a third grader at the Sonoma Charter School wearing a pink Tinkerbell T-shirt, has been coming for as long as she can remember.
"I like it because it's taking something that is a scrap, and turning it into something that is really fun that you want to use," she said, proudly handing over to her father a leather wristband embossed with the word "Dad."