Times Past

Dreaming of a traditional snowless California Christmas

Henry Chapman Ford’s 1881 painting of the ruins of the chapel, priest’s residence and warehouse at the Asistencía de Santa Margarita de Cortona. The ruins still stand protected by a barnlike structure on the Santa Margarita Rancho.
Henry Chapman Ford’s 1881 painting of the ruins of the chapel, priest’s residence and warehouse at the Asistencía de Santa Margarita de Cortona. The ruins still stand protected by a barnlike structure on the Santa Margarita Rancho.

“The sun is shining, the grass is green

“The orange and palm trees sway

“I’ve never seen such a day

“In Beverly Hills, L.A.

“But it’s December the twenty-fourth

“And I am longing to be up north”

Irving Berlin’s original opening lyrics to “White Christmas” were included by Bing Crosby when he premiered the song on his NBC radio show, The Kraft Music Hall, on Christmas Day 1941.

But they didn’t fit the settings for the 1942 film musical, “Holiday Inn,” or the 1954 reprisal, “White Christmas.” The “Christmas without snow” lament was largely forgotten until it was revived by Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Karen Carpenter during the ’70s.

We don’t get many opportunities to think of poor Irving Berlin suffering at his and director Frank Capra’s favorite refuge, La Quinta Hotel, still a major resort and Hollywood hangout located in the Coachella Valley about 140 miles from Beverly Hills. An alternate folklore argues that Berlin wrote “White Christmas” while lounging by the Catalina Pool at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix in January 1939.

Berlin’s lament contrasts with the sentiments of Charles Fletcher Lummis in 1885.

Lummis was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard. In 1884, he decided to walk from Ohio to Southern California. After a stint as city editor of the Los Angeles Times, Lummis soon became arguably the greatest booster of life in Southern California.

Lummis’ Land of Sunshine magazine promoted the idea of moving to the land of perpetual warmth. He started the practice of the Los Angeles Times “Midwinter Edition,” “… a 24-page paper, and we hope to make it the finest exponent of this (Southern California) country that ever existed.”

Two years later, it grew to “48 handsome pages, stitched for convenience and better preservation, equivalent to a 150-page book.” It was designed to be sent east by Southern Californians to their snowbound relatives in the Midwest.

The televised images of Pasadena’s Rose Parade, especially after the advent of color broadcasting in the ’60s and ’70s, have the same effect on Midwestern and Northeastern residents today.

But Christmas in a land of no seasonal changes posed a problem that Lummis and the Southern California boosters have yet to solve:

Many residents of the Northeastern and Central United States believe that snow is essential for a real Christmas celebration. Their belief has been enshrined in song on the stage and in the movies: “And May All Your Christmases be White!” Yet those of us lucky enough to live in coastal California know differently.

Although it’s true that many of our Christmas traditions come from Northern Europe, Christmastide was in fact an occasion for festivities in early California. The observance lacked Christmas trees, snow and reindeer, but had many other features that the younger children loved.

Christmas Eve was also referred to as La Noche Buena, “The Good Night.” In most Californio homes, it was the great festival of the whole year. The celebration centered on the Midnight or Vigil Mass. Such masses were celebrated both in the still usable mission churches and in private chapels at the larger ranchos. Joaquín Estrada's family often used the old stone Asistencía of Santa Margarita de Cortona, which still stands under the shelter of a barn on the old Santa Margarita Ranch. Here, rough vaqueros and elegantly decked out rancheros would observe the religious rites.

This was often followed by the presentation of a “Miracle Play” titled Los Paśtores (The Shepherds). Young people in appropriate costume would act out the roles of the events in Bethlehem. The staging was accompanied by the notes of a sprightly guitar.

The performance, following a two-hour Midnight Mass, would be enlivened with a great deal of comic relief. In the pueblos like Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, the party might continue with a posada, going from house to house, emulating the Holy Family in its search for shelter.

So, do we really need snow for a blessed Christmas?

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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