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All it requires to conjure the Christmas magic at El Metate is the flip of a switch.
Suddenly, the tiny ice skaters swirl, the minuscule church bells tremble, the swings sway back and forth. All the festive felicidad potent in this doll-sized winter wonderland is perfectly framed by the iconic yellow taqueria’s window at 22nd and Bryant streets. For the first time this year, owner Francisco Hernandez installed an “American” Christmas window display to complement his longstanding Nativity scene in the other window.
When he turned it on recently, a boy waiting for his Mexican food gasped.
“This is the American way,” said Hernandez. Then, pointing at the Nativity: “This is the Mexican way.”
And still yet, the “American” display pays homage to his childhood days in Mexico, when Hernandez would leave his small town for the big city around Christmastime, and treat himself to mesmerizing displays in the storefronts.
“You cannot lose your sense of being a kid,” Hernandez said. “Because if you lose that thing, you lose everything.”
Already, area residents have embraced their inner children. “It’s funny how many people have come to our windows and said, ‘That’s so nice,’” Hernandez said. He caught a woman entranced at the scene one day, and discovered her again that evening. “I wanted to see it at night,” she told him.
It’s a sight to behold when darkness falls, for sure. The tiny lights turn on in the buildings, and the whole scene of both windows glow warmly from afar. It took three days and $2,000 to build the “American” side, as Hernandez calls it. He ordered pieces, “tiny to large,” from a specific company. (He could not immediately recall the name of the company.) The owner also scavenged a few more items on Facebook.
He couldn’t help it. “See the churches? They’re so well-made. I got carried away, and got, like, six. My partner said, ‘Why does this town have so many churches?’” He grinned. “I said, ‘Because this town is very religious.’”
Even in a life-sized world, Hernandez always felt churches were a country’s most beautiful place to visit. The religious significance of Christmas loomed large for the Mexican immigrant, which is why he has carefully arranged a traditional Nativity scene in his taqueria’s window every winter since his restaurant’s opening in 2002.
Hernandez emphasized this by pointing out a framed image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, bordered by a string of Christmas lights, which hangs above El Metate’s door. He began building Nativity scenes in his native Mexico at the age of eight, acquiring more and more props over the years.
By now, “I have enough to fill up this whole room,” said Hernandez, who immigrated in 1969. By 1975 he was staging elaborate nativity scenes in his own Mission District home for Las Posadas, a Latin American tradition where folks spend nine nights of celebration in others’ homes to signify Mary and Joseph’s search for an inn. Once he opened the restaurant, Hernandez began staging his windows, with this year marking his “American” debut.
Even when the scenes were just at his house, groups of 100 or so visitors would come over to party and gawk at his nativity creations. Strangers would drop by and ask to see it, and he’d always welcome them. Jesus, the story of his birth: “That’s the real Christmas to me.”
Hernandez plans to keep the Nativity scene in El Metate’s window until mid-January, though he really feels he needs to keep it until Feb. 2, Día de Candelaria, a Mexican holiday that honors the day Jesus was presented to the Temple and is a follow-up to Three Kings Day.
The American winter wonderland, he doesn’t want to take down at all. “I’m going to start crying.”
But, it’s okay; it comes back better than ever each year, and Hernandez is already plotting how he’ll exercise more creativity. He has already purchased new pieces, including a Chinese restaurant. “Because I love Chinese food. I eat it once a week. I have a pizzeria, why not a Chinese restaurant?”
Francisco is the loveliest person. I took my son there with me when he was 3 days old. Francisco always asks after him even 12 years on. Best flan in San Francisco and still my son’s favorite refried beans.
Step inside El Metate to listen, too. Many of the little buildings are music boxes.