Religious holiday decorations that were banished a year ago from their longtime home in Mission Viejo to a remote park have returned this year to the bustling corner of Chrisanta Drive and La Paz Road, restoring a 35-year-old tradition that many locals had feared would fade.
"The religious symbols have special meaning during the holidays," said city resident Thanh Thayer, 35, who visits the intersection annually with her daughters to see the popular Nativity scene.
Mission Viejo adopted a new policy this year to avoid legal difficulties that could arise when the city has to choose which religions should be represented in a limited public space.
Under the new arrangement, representatives of any faith that want to mount a display at the intersection, known as Four Corners, first must apply by entering a lottery. The first eight names randomly drawn by the city may display at Four Corners, while the remaining applicants are offered spots at Florence Joyner Olympiad Park two miles away.
Only four faiths applied this year, so each had a spot at Four Corners: a Catholic Nativity scene and displays representing Protestant, Bahai and Jewish faiths.
Depending on participation and the luck of the draw, the traditional Nativity scene could be excluded from Four Corners next year.
The lottery system is appropriate to an increasingly diverse community, said Mission Viejo City Manager Dan Joseph.
"I guess you can say the displays have changed with the changing character of Mission Viejo. It's more representative of more groups that want to be a part of the community," Joseph said.
The new system was developed in response to a controversy. Last year, six faiths -- including Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Buddhist -- competed for space at the intersection, which traditionally accommodated only two religious displays in addition to a Santa's workshop and community Christmas tree.
Fearing legal complications, the city prohibited religious displays on that corner and moved them to a roomier -- though more secluded -- spot at the park.
The intersection itself was decorated with only secular displays, including a Santa Claus, a winter scene and U.S. flags.
In response to the controversy, the Mission Viejo Activities Committee, which had run the displays for years, pulled out. "As we got more requests for religious displays, we knew, inevitably, it would be more of a public matter," said Don Asay, a longtime volunteer and former committee president.
By adopting the lottery and increasing the number of displays, the city has restored some semblance of harmony for the seasonal exhibit, many say.
"I think the city's reached an amicable solution, but I hope this issue comes to a rest," said Mission Viejo resident Hamid Bahadori, 42. Bahadori had threatened to sue last year if the city had chosen which faiths would be represented.
"If we want to celebrate our sense of community, than let's be as inclusive of all religions as possible," Bahadori said.
From the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas, at least 60 volunteers spend an average of 100 hours total putting up thousands of holiday lights and handing out hundreds of cups of hot chocolate at the intersection. Over the season, Santa listens to at least 150 children a week who wait two to three hours to whisper their wishes.