The Haas-Lilienthal House was donated to the San Francisco Architectural Heritage in 1974, but every December 24, descendants of William and Bertha Haas take out the one set of keys they kept and unlock the front door to 2007 Franklin Street. Since 1886, the Haas-Lilienthal family has gathered every Christmas Eve, a tradition Joshua Plaut used as an anecdotal opening in his new book, Kosher Christmas.
"That was never a term we used," said John Rothmann, the great-grandson of the Haas family. His mother, Frances Bransten Rothmann, simply called it Christmas in her book, The Haas Sisters of Franklin Street: A Look Back With Love. "When I hand my children, now in their 20s, the keys to the front door of their great-great grandparents' house, it's continuity, generation to generation."
No matter what you call it, when fourth and fifth generations of the Haas-Lilienthals come together next Monday, nothing about the reunion is accidental. Months earlier, the eldest meet to plan the menu for attendees, which usually number no less than 40 people. This year, Rothmann's wife is making the turkey. Kate Lilienthal's birthday is on December 25, so every year someone bakes a chocolate cake from an old family recipe. When the date has fallen on Shabbat, they recite the Kiddush before they eat. If it is Chanukah, they light the menorah. The family typically sticks to the main floor, which has remained largely unchanged since it became the only Victorian house museum open to the public in San Francisco. While there are no young children in the family, many still make a trip upstairs to visit the train set Mortan Vrang, the family's longtime chauffeur, made for Billy Haas around 1940.
"Among German Jews, and particularly the social elite, celebrating Christmas was quite common," said Plaut, noting it declined after Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the 1870s, when many Jews were wondering whether they should celebrate the holiday at all.
For the Haas family, however, there was no religious connotation, and no debate about whether or not to gather the night before Christmas. Originally, guests also included the upper echelon of San Francisco society. At the turn of the century, preparation began months in advance, and usually had a theme that reflected the family's travels, including "the Orient" and "Mexican vacation."
"This secular observance of Christmas is a wonderful expression of the House's cultural significance, demonstrating the adaptation of a Jewish family in early San Francisco to traditional American customs," said Mike Buhler, executive director of the San Francisco Architectural Heritage, the nonprofit that runs the house. In addition to running the house, they have taken over the responsibility of decorating the house for the holidays.
Since the mid 1900s, the night has ceased to be a fete for the city's elite, but rather serves as a consistent date for the family reunion. This year, the Haas-Lilienthal descendants have even more to celebrate. In October, the House was declared a "National Treasure," the only cultural institution in San Francisco to earn the accolade.
While this designation does not make the Haas-Lilienthal House immune to the crisis facing historic house museums across the country -- a steep decline in donations and attendance in the face of mounting preservation needs -- it may just put it on a more sustainable path.
"The house as a national treasure is significant for the entire city," Rothmann mused, noting it is open for the public to visit the rest of the year. "And for us? For us, the house is the anchor of memory."