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A century of decorations: SF’s cable cars decked out with holly, bird sculptures and even cows

Passengers board Cable Car 26 for a trip up Hyde Street on Dec. 7, 2017. | Courtesy SFMTA

’Tis the season for boughs of holly, and that’s certainly the case for five of San Francisco’s historic cable cars, which are adorned with garlands, wreaths, lights and more through the end of the winter holiday.

But it may surprise you to learn that this tradition dates back more than a century.

As far back as 1910, a group of men and young boys gathered in front of a garland-draped streetcar on Gough Street one late December, celebrating the debut of the route’s new electric cable car.

A group of gentlemen pose in December 1910 with a garland-draped streetcar on Gough Street. | Courtesy SFMTA

In 1962, local businesses banded together to celebrate Muni’s 50th birthday by decorating its cable cars with various designs. One cable car was covered in thousands of flowers. Another, pictured below, was designed to resemble a barn full of cows.

A decorated cable car sponsored by Marin-Dell Dairy pulls away from the Powell and Market turntable full of passengers in 1962. | Courtesy SFMTA

Eleven years later, in 1973, SF’s cable cars celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first cable car line. A cable car, decorated with daisies and bird sculptures, wove its way through the city.

A “float” in the cable car centennial parade in 1973, spruced up with daisies and banners, as well as bird sculptures that appear to hover above the cable car. | Courtesy SFMTA

Today, SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said the decorating of SF’s cable cars “adds even more atmosphere to San Francisco during the holidays as staff get into the spirit of the season.”

In fact, some transit operators play festive tunes with the cable car’s bell, though “this isn’t a policy or anything, and is something an operator may choose to do during a ride,” said Kato.

On a recent Saturday evening, we heard a festive cable car rattle down Powell Street to the tune of “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Cable Car 4 heads into the holiday glow of Powell Street after leaving the Powell/Market Street turnaround on Dec. 17, 2014. | Courtesy SFMTA

This year’s five festive cable cars can be ridden on the Powell/Mason, Powell/Hyde or California Cable Car lines.

Sophie Bearman can be reached at