Santa wasn't the only Red-suited guest at one Christmas party held Sunday in Los Angeles.
Members of the Communist Party gathered beneath a Christmas tree topped with a hammer-and-sickle to munch holiday cookies and mull over how Karl Marx's theories still might be able to bring peace on Earth and goodwill to men.
No matter that the Bolsheviks banned Christmas celebrations for more than seven decades in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. Never mind that atheism was the official Soviet doctrine until communists were drummed out of power, sending world communism into a tailspin in 1991.
And despite what they consider a political setback Saturday with the impeachment of President Clinton, there was still plenty of holiday cheer to go around as about 50 local communists gathered in a Mid-City meeting hall festooned with Christmas ornaments, tinsel and yuletide candles.
"We don't have a problem with God. It's the system we have a problem with," said Evelina Alarcon as she ladled out pork and hominy soup to party-goers from the hall's kitchen.
Alarcon, 48, of El Sereno, is chairwoman of the Communist Party USA's Southern California district. She said the Christmas bash proves that American communists can keep in step with the times.
Today's party appeals to those who support such issues as health care reform and organized labor, who oppose the Republican right and are "looking for more radical change to problems with the system," Alarcon said.
"A lot of the stigma is gone. Young people of today haven't experienced the anti-communism of the past. The fall of the Soviet Union was a setback. But it didn't stop American communists. Fraternally, we were connected to the Soviet Union. But we have our own goals."
As if on cue, Richard Taylor and Robert Lemons escorted a red-costumed Santa Claus into the dining room. Taylor, 23, of Highland Park and 19-year-old Lemons of Duarte are members of the Young Communists League. Both were wearing T-shirts bearing Lenin's likeness.
"The Cold War is over and people need to start recognizing the good work of communists in the past," suggested Taylor, an art student and illustrator.
Still, it pays to be cautious when talking politics with others, said Lemons--who works as a machinist in a nonunion shop.
"You don't have to say the word 'communist' when you're talking. Certain words raise flags with people. You just inject little ideas here and there in your conversation," Lemons said.
In the next room, a rock band called L.A. Blues Works was warming up, playing a few riffs of heavily amplified Christmas music. Esther Cicconi hurried to finish her lunch before heading in to listen.
"I've been a communist since I was 15," said Cicconi, a 79-year-old retired office worker and homemaker who lives in Koreatown.
The longtime Soviet ban on Christmas was "grossly exaggerated" by outsiders, suggested Cicconi--who acknowledged that the fall of the Soviet Union "really hurt me. . . . I was very proud of what was accomplished by the working class there."
Being a communist in America isn't easy, she added.
"It's very lonely. Not too many people who are communists have their relatives or people in their workplace on their side," she said. "One man asked me if I was sure I was a communist, because I seemed so nice."
Some of the Communist Party party-goers moved outside as band grew louder and turned to its repertoire of rock oldies. John Kitchenka pulled a jacket over his Che Guevara T-shirt as he talked of the challenges of being an American communist in 1998.
"A lot of people don't know there's still a Communist Party," said Kitchenka, a 43-year-old Santa Monica deliveryman. "My Republican stepfather knows I'm a communist, but tells people I'm a socialist because he can't take it."
Roz Munoz was wearing a Christmas sweatshirt. Red, of course.
"Sometimes people do a little Red-baiting, a little sniping when they hear you're a communist," said Munoz, 51, a nurse from Lincoln Heights.
"But it's no different from Republicans sniping at Democrats."