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Op-Ed: Dreaming of a smoggy Christmas in Southern California

Cars sit on Sepulveda Blvd. in Sherman Oaks in 1949 while their owners wait for ice on the roads to melt so that they can drive over the Sepulveda Pass into Beverly Hills.
(Los Angeles Times)

The weather outside wasn’t frightful at Christmas when I was 8. The days leading up to Dec. 25 in 1956 had been in the mid-80s in my neighborhood. The day itself sweltered at 86. Outside, as my mother addressed the cards she dutifully sent to relatives in the East, winter meant only that our lawn had turned brown, leaves on the neighbor’s tree had reddened and fallen, and the light of a low, southern sun glared through the smog. The dry air forecast brush fires.

1958 was another year of temperatures in the 80s during Christmas week. Fog in the early morning, accompanied by heavy smog later in the day, closed airports and shrouded freeways. The basin and inland valleys became a 250-square-mile, urine-colored pool of ozone, nitrogen oxides, and molecule-sized bits of partially burned gasoline and diesel fuel. Doctors warned of eye irritation, chest pains, cough, shortness of breath, nausea and headache. Some warned of worse – chronic emphysema and lung cancer.

I rode my Schwinn bike in that hot, leaden air as car radios played the holiday songs of an alien America, where Jack Frost nipped at the noses of walkers in a winter wonderland and folks dressed up like Eskimos to hear sleigh bells in the snow.

It’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas, if that means mostly sunny days and temperatures in the low 60s.

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Although boosters never speak of it, snow has fallen on Los Angeles (depending on what you mean by snow). Higher elevations in the city’s foothills get thin slush irregularly, most recently in 2007. The last true snow to fall on downtown and the flatlands where I live was in 1949. Over a three-day siege of storms that began on Jan. 10, several inches of genuine snow fell. At first a snowy L.A. was fun, despite the cars that skidded through downtown intersections.

By the second day, more snow, hail and sleet tied up freeways and closed canyon roads, with more than 20 cars trapped in Laurel Canyon alone. Snow (or something like it) reached coastal cities as far south as San Diego. In Long Beach, The Times reported, “snow, rain, sleet, hail, thunder, and lightning succeeded one another.” Snow fell on Catalina Island on the third day, dropping eight inches on Blackjack Peak.

It’s unlikely that snow like that will ever fall again on Los Angeles. The heat island effect of urban development, as well as the mounting effects of climate change, will keep nighttime temperatures too high for downtown residents to wake up to another white Christmas.

Snow is supposed to spur nostalgia. For Irving Berlin, remembering snowy Christmases produced the most successful holiday song of all, selling well over 150 million copies after it was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942. In the rarely heard introduction to Berlin’s “White Christmas,” there’s a reason for the song’s mood of reverie and loss: “The sun is shining, the grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway/There’s never been such a day/In Beverly Hills, L.A./But it’s December the 24th/And I’m longing to be up North.”

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But as a native, I never expected my Christmases to be white. Snow at Christmas time on the summits of the local mountains (when they could be seen through the petrochemical byproducts) was a kind of theatrical backdrop. It was like Hollywood’s fake snow, made first of powdered asbestos and then a sprayable mixture of fire extinguisher foam, sugar and corn flakes. That formula, because it didn’t crunch under the actor’s feet, won a technical award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1950.

The songs, the cards invoking snowmen and sleigh rides and carolers bundled up against the cold, the reruns on TV of “It’s a Wonderful Life” with its acres of fake snow, they were unreal to me. I’d never seen chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I’d never seen a chestnut. Worse than other people’s memories of home and winter comfort were seasonal hybrids like Surfin’ Santa (San Diego’s official representative of the holidays), or Johnny Mathis improbably singing “When it’s Christmas in the city of the angels the blue Pacific becomes the Sea of Galilee” in “Christmas in the City of Angeles.”

It’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas, if that means mostly sunny days and temperatures in the low 60s. If I want a simulation of a traditional holiday, I could attend the Winter Fest at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. “Real snow” is manufactured daily. Ice is even more uncommon than snow in Los Angeles, but you can skate on it through Christmas week at Pershing Square, onboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and in downtown Santa Monica. VIP cabanas are available, in place of ice fishing cabins.

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A Christmas tradition better fitted to the city’s climate – and older than its ice rinks – requires some walking. Begun in Mexico in the 16th century, the celebration of Las Posadas is a kind of pilgrimage in imitation of the search for shelter that Mary and Joseph are said to have made on the first Christmas Eve. Every night until Dec. 24, you can join (or watch) a candlelight procession, with singing in English and Spanish, that begins at the Avila adobe and continues among the historic buildings on Olvera Street.

I’ll be hoping for an old-fashioned Christmas this year – enough chill in the air to require a sweater, a quiet walk on the beach before an early dinner, kids on skateboards in the street, and colored lights strung in the palm trees.

And the air quality will be better than the Christmases I used to know.

D. J. Waldie is the author of “Holy Land: Suburban Memoir” among other books about Southern California. He is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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