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Sneaky Santa Puts Outlaw Holiday Back on the Books

December 26, 1985|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

The West Hollywood City Council in August voted down the Christmas holiday--an act that evoked images of Scrooge and the Grinch. But Santa Claus would not be denied on his appointed rounds in Los Angeles County's newest, and perhaps quirkiest, municipality.

When workers arrived at the turquoise and gray City Hall on Wednesday, they found on their desks gifts of gumdrops, candy canes and oranges decorated with bright bows and tinsel--and this note: "Yes, West Hollywood, there is a Santa."

On a day that was supposed to be business-as-usual at West Hollywood City Hall--a day that just about every other government entity observes as a holiday, closing everything except emergency services--Dec. 25 proved atypical.

'I'm Not Here'

"I've had a lot of people call up and ask, are you really there?" said Annette Bova, City Hall receptionist. "No, I always answer the phone when I'm not here," she observed sarcastically.

Only about 25% of the staff showed up, the remainder using one of their "floating" holidays to celebrate Christmas. The day was marked by visits from the news media--and the mystery of who played St. Nick at City Hall.

Although he wore gym shorts and running shoes Wednesday, Mayor John Heilman was one of the prime Santa suspects. He at first denied it, then became politically coy, saying only: "No comment." (Office detectives later determined that Santa was Joe Brewster, a rent control counselor, who dropped off the gifts early, then took the day off.)

Councilman Alan Viterbi, working at his desk Wednesday, was never a Santa suspect.

Raising the Issue

It was Viterbi, an observant Jew, who introduced an ordinance last March that would have halted all non-emergency city operations on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It is estimated that about one-third of West Hollywood's 35,000 residents are Jewish.

But prominent members of the Jewish community opposed Viterbi's idea, saying it would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The city attorney agreed. Well then, asked Viterbi, what about Christmas? The city attorney replied that the U.S. Supreme Court considers Christmas a secular holiday.

In August, the City Council, led by Viterbi, voted to under-rule the U.S. Supreme Court, determining that Christmas, as far as West Hollywood is concerned, is strictly a religious observance. Therefore, it would not be a city holiday. Instead, the floating holiday system for city employees was expanded.

Asked for five minutes of his time on Wednesday, Viterbi grimaced and said, "How about one? I've got a lot of work to do."

Debate Continues

The response of the citizens and city workers has been positive, Viterbi said. "The government has got to respond to the pluralism of American society." Christmas, he continued, "is a very important holiday to many people and to proclaim that it is a secular holiday is an insult to those people and an insult to anyone who is intelligent."

But the debate raged on Wednesday. Sometimes Jews and Christians took surprising sides.

An 80-year-old Jewish immigrant from Hungary who had come in to buy a senior citizen bus pass nodded sagely and said the nay vote on Christmas was a bad idea. "The Jews will suffer for this, you'll see," he allowed. He asked that his name not be printed.

Lesson in History

But Jill Gilmour, the City Council secretary, said she thought the council's decision was both just and historically accurate. Gilmour explained that she is a Christian--a Pentacostal Apostolic, to be precise--who doesn't believe in Christmas. That's why she chose to work.

"If you study the history, you'll know He (Jesus) wasn't born in December . . . It had to be sometime in October," she said. "You should celebrate everyday. Everyday is His birthday."

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