No one had ever seen a crowd like this -- 1,400 people jammed into a bank parking lot, quite a turnout considering that fewer than 20,000 people live here. There were pigtailed girls handing out candy canes. There were dogs tolerating Rudolph costumes. Santa dropped by.
"We have such a gift here," said the celebrity emcee, Catherine Dent, an actress and a local. Then she asked everyone to turn to a stranger, to make a new friend. Smack in the middle of one of the world's largest metropolises, they did.
Had you stumbled upon this scene, you might have assumed that this sort of thing, this sort of placidity, pervades Atwater Village the rest of the year, too. You would have been wrong.
There was no sign of the bickering that has consumed civic leaders -- over whether they should buy environmentally friendly Christmas lights, or which group of city boosters should have the honor of supplying those candy canes to the pigtailed girls.
No sign of the deep divisions between old guard and new, of the accusations of hate speech and gay-bashing, of the charges that some have tried to turn Christmas into some sort of anti-war protest.
No sign that a Neighborhood Council member would feel compelled to declare, on a community Internet forum, that he is "a White Christian Heterosexual Male." No sign that a proposed theme of "peace" for the tree-lighting had been roundly rejected.
For a century, Atwater Village had been home to a diverse collection of working-class families. Civic leaders boasted of its small-town feeling, but some began to believe that sentiment was mere cover for the fact that nearby neighborhoods, such as Silver Lake, had undergone sweeping renewals. Atwater Village, some felt, had been passed by.
Eventually, gentrification arrived with a wave of urban professionals. Today, Atwater Village is a study in contrasts.
There are quaint landmarks -- the Tam O'Shanter Inn, where Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Walt Disney used to dine; Club Tee Gee, a charming, wood-paneled bar where daytime patrons squint into the light when someone new walks in. And there is a bustling collection of new stores, galleries and cafes, a wine shop, dog boutique and yoga studios, most along Glendale Boulevard, its commercial spine.
A few years back, Mark Newman-Kuzel, a dynamo with his cat's name tattooed on his wrist, waded into the mix, and not gingerly. As the owner of a cleaning company, he was not thrilled with the business environment in Atwater.
"There just wasn't a whole heck of a lot getting done," he said.
Those shortcomings were most palpable, he said, during the Atwater Griffith Park Chamber of Commerce's annual tree ceremony, when the redwood was draped with scrawny strands of lights, and snickering could be heard in the small crowd. Two years ago, he joined the chamber board. This summer, he went for broke.
He and 11 others formed a slate of candidates, dubbed the "Vibrant Village." They won, backed by almost unanimous support from the new shops, and he became chamber president -- knocking off Betty Bartlotta, a business-community fixture and tart-tongued storyteller who has owned Club Tee Gee since the early 1980s.
Bartlotta and three others defeated that night were stunned. No one had ever campaigned for the chamber board; often, the board hadn't even managed to fill all of its seats. Here were young upstarts -- "newbies," as Newman-Kuzel says -- holding strategy meetings late into the night and distributing campaign handbills.
"We were just hungrier and more enthusiastic," said Newman-Kuzel, 48. "And clearly, the bulk of Atwater Village wanted a change."
But it rubbed some people the wrong way.
"We were caught with our pants down," Bartlotta said. "We were very much embarrassed by the whole thing. All of this? In a tiny village?"
She sighed and picked at a basket of popcorn.