Crowded shopping malls. Traffic jams. Post office lines. Nonstop parties. Hurried, harried people everywhere.
It seems to begin earlier every year--the mounting holiday-season stresses that seem unavoidable in a county in which more than 2 million people are preparing to celebrate, including many who must face the holidays alone.
For some, this is a time to escape to the beaches of Hawaii or Mexico or to such mountain resorts as Big Bear, Mammoth, Aspen, Colo., and Park City, Utah.
Among them are a family who make a tradition out of not celebrating at all, a single man who travels to avoid loneliness and a family who retreat to the mountains to celebrate Christmas Norman Rockwell-style.
"It all started as a result of having a number of young children and shopping for them at holiday time," Martin Weinberg explains.
The number is five, and Marty and wife Elaine once felt obligated to buy the same number of gifts for each child. "We realized that this gave momentary pleasure to our kids," Marty says, "but we were beating our brains out trying to shop, and the rewards weren't great. So one year we decided: next time, no presents--vacation instead."
The next holiday season, the Weinbergs--Southern California natives and longtime residents of North Tustin--went to Big Bear and discovered snow.
The kids "were totally thrilled," Elaine says. They didn't seem to miss the gifts; on the contrary, Marty says, as the kids got older, they were glad to be free of the responsibility of buying for such a large family.
That first trip led to ski trips at Mammoth, Yosemite, Sun Valley and Aspen. But after a particularly frigid winter about 10 years ago, the Weinbergs started making annual holiday pilgrimages to their oceanfront condo on Maui.
The longtime family tradition of a no-gifts, no-frills holiday getaway has survived, even though the five children are grown--they range in age from 25 to 35--and not everyone makes it to Hawaii every year.
Marty and Elaine--open, free-spirited, family-centered people who have been partners in marriage for 36 years and partners in the Irvine law firm of Weinberg & Weinberg since 1974--are the proud parents of four Southern California attorneys. Paul and Robert are partners in the Irvine law firm. David is a deputy district attorney based in Westminster, and Nancy, whose husband is also a lawyer, practices in Los Angeles. Bill, the youngest, is a student at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton.
The Weinbergs are Jewish, but they haven't celebrated Hanukkah since their kids were in grade school. Their monthlong winter vacations in Hawaii, often shared with friends, are carefree and low-key--"it's not a Hallmark holiday," Elaine says.
They lie on the beach, read, play tennis, swim, go scuba diving and snorkeling, eat in restaurants where bathing suits are welcome, take leisurely walks, watch the sunset.
Marty has a tie that says "Bah! Humbug!" but he isn't a Scrooge at heart. He just hates the commercialized holiday scene in which "everybody is trying to outdo the other."
The Weinbergs have even managed to break away from the time-consuming ritual of sending Christmas cards to friends.
"We used to get lots of cards, and I had a fairly heavy guilt trip because I didn't respond to them," Elaine says. But she also felt that a great burden had been lifted.
"It's been marvelous."
Every Dec. 26, Russell Smith goes where the skiing is good and the possibilities bright for meeting someone who can bring a little joy into what, for many singles, can be the dreariest time of the year.
If he's lucky, he'll find her on the highest, steepest slopes that attract only the best skiers. But he says he'll settle for an intermediate skier and a good dinner companion who can help fill the emptiness that he and many other singles feel during a season dominated by family celebrations.
The first Christmases after his divorce 17 years ago were "stressful and sad," recalls Smith, a fit, suntanned, slightly graying 43-year-old who sells electronics products and lives in an apartment in Costa Mesa.
"I used to dread Christmas because it's a time of togetherness, and if you're divorced, you don't have that. There's a void."
Smith began looking forward to the holidays when he started taking annual trips to ski resorts, or, if the snow was bad, to Puerto Vallarta.
Now, he says, the holiday season "doesn't have the devastating effect it used to. I'm grateful for that."
He spends Christmas Day with his mother and 17-year-old daughter in his native Las Vegas, where he soaks up a sense of tradition from the Christmas tree, his mom's homemade popcorn balls and a turkey dinner. Then he heads for off-the-beaten-path ski resorts in Utah or Wyoming that can be booked late enough for him to determine whether the snow will be good. He returns home after an exhilarating New Year's Day on the slopes--a tradition he protects by going light on the booze on New Year's Eve.