Thanks to the confluence of climate and geography, summoning the spirit of the winter holidays in Southern California can be challenging. If you happen to hail from a postcard-perfect yuletide backdrop such as rural Vermont (as this writer does), the seasonal séance can take on Sisyphean proportions.
It’s not the big things you might expect. Snow is as close as Big Bear. O Tannenbaum is just as easily plucked from that empty lot on Doheny as harvested from the back 40. And, thanks to the entertainment industry, our shopping mall Santas are second to none.
By the time you factor in the faux snow squalls at the Grove shopping center and the pop-up ice-skating rinks such as the one at Pershing Square, you’re within a few lords a-leaping of something that resembles a traditional East Coast holiday experience.
Eventually most transplants do adapt — some more quickly and easily than others. But for many who have made their way this far west and south — on purpose or by accident, running to or fleeing from something — the hammock of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day will always feel a little bit like wearing someone else’s long underwear. It’s keeping you warm but doesn’t feel quite right.
When the square peg of the holiday season suddenly slips effortlessly into the round SoCal hole — in year one or year 21 — it is as magical and unexpected a moment as hearing those first few reindeer hooves on a snow-packed roof. The trigger will awaken some hidden hard-wired part of the brain — the scent of organic pine cones for sale at the local farmers market, the muffled sound of a holiday party filtered through 4 feet of floorboards or the slight taste of a peppermint stick on a loved one’s lips. The best part, though you probably won’t see it coming, is that once it’s happened you’ll head into future holiday seasons knowing exactly which Pavlovian switch to throw.
My shortcut to comfort and joy turned out to be as simple as holiday lights. Not the garish, over-the-top displays of lighted excess that pit neighbor against neighbor for a shout-out on the local evening news. Not the kind burning so much candlepower in a riot of ginormous candy canes and animated elves that it could only be sponsored by the Los Angeles DWP. No, my holiday spirit came, in 2007, thanks to a single, 6-foot strand of plain, white Christmas tree lights wound three times around the trunk of the towering palm tree in our backyard.
The moment that little handful of white lights sprang to life I suddenly remembered something a stranger had said to me in passing some 20 years before. I was working as a bank teller in Burlington, Vt., and was getting ready to lock the door behind the last customer of the night. As he left, the slight bearded and bespectacled man leaned toward me and gestured slowly toward the Christmas lights twinkling to life on the street beyond.
“Remember,” he whispered conspiratorially, pointing one finger straight up toward the sky, “it all started with just one light.”
With that, he slipped out the door and into the night, and the random encounter was all but forgotten for the better part of two decades.
But starting with that moment in 2007 when the lights came on, and every holiday season since, the first time I see one of those simple, single strands of white lights wound around a palm tree, draped over a barrel cactus or slung casually across a nearby office cubicle, the mysterious stranger returns to whisper me into the holiday spirit.