Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: California is the creator of our Christmas traditions

Ernesto Belmonte installs Christmas lights in his Sacramento front yard on Nov. 28. California’s role in modeling our ideas of what Christmas should be like gets overlooked, says commentator Joe Mathews.
Ernesto Belmonte installs Christmas lights in his Sacramento front yard on Nov. 28. California’s role in modeling our ideas of what Christmas should be like gets overlooked, says commentator Joe Mathews. rbenton@sacbee.com

Do the good citizens of New Orleans skip town during Mardi Gras? Do proper New Englanders take cruises when their trees display glorious fall colors? Would New Yorkers dare sneak out of Times Square 10 minutes before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve?

Of course not.

So why must I leave California this coming Christmas week? Because too many people – including my wife, who insists our family spend this holiday in her native Wisconsin – fail to see the truth: California is the true home of Christmas.

Yes, I know that California’s status as Christmas headquarters is not widely recognized, especially given the widespread misperception that the holiday should be cold and snow-white. But like virtually everything else about our 21st-century Christmas, that misperception is itself a California product.

The Golden State popularizes the modern Christmas via our entertainment industries, designs it through our toymakers, digitizes it through Silicon Valley and distributes it through our ports. Even the quintessential carol, “White Christmas,” is set in California on Christmas Eve. Here is its mostly forgotten first verse:

The sun is shining. The grass is green.

The orange and palm trees sway

There has never been such a day

In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the 24th. And I’m longing to be up north.

Then comes the familiar chorus. Sadly, some fools overlook the key “I’m dreaming” phrase and travel to cold, bleak places to re-create white Christmases. The dream, for those stranded in airports throughout the Midwest and Northeast, often becomes a nightmare.

What’s more, the songwriter Irving Berlin told a historian that he composed “White Christmas” at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The song – and the films and TV shows that used it and similar tunes – redefined the holiday. Berlin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, has been credited with taking the “Christ” out of Christmas, turning a religious holiday into a unifying national one. Today, 90 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of non-Christians, celebrate Christmas.

Subsequent generations of Californians have updated this tradition. For my money, the best California Christmas film is the original “Die Hard,” an action film set in a Century City skyscraper that ends with snow in L.A. The best Christmas music came from The Carpenters, the city of Downey’s gift to the world. This year, California’s Christmas present to the planet is a new “Star Wars” movie, courtesy of those California giants of storytelling – Disney and Lucasfilm.

California’s Christmas leadership goes beyond the screen. It’s impossible to imagine the holiday without Mattel, the El Segundo-based toymaker. Its brands include Barbie, Hot Wheels, American Girl and Fisher-Price. While Mattel faces financial challenges now, other toymakers – including giant Hasbro and smaller firms such as Jakks Pacific – have built stronger presences in Southern California, aka Santa’s workshop.

Now, while we all know Santa Claus delivers toys to good girls and boys, we should be honest and let our kids know that Kris Kringle relies on overseas manufacturers, often in Asia. Many gifts enter the U.S. through our giant ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach and are distributed via inland California warehouses. From there, Santa, through some magic, gets them into your home.

Southern California’s Christmas leadership is not purely secular. Los Angeles is the largest archdiocese in the country, with 4.3 million Catholics. And Orange County is home to this era’s most prominent evangelical pastor, Rick Warren.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The 21st-century Christmas is about capitalism and dreams and artifice, and no place does dreamy capitalistic artifice like California. Heck, our largest city, Los Angeles, even derives one of its nicknames from a popular Christmas decoration. They don’t call us Tinseltown for nothing.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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