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An L.A. Christmas blends many traditions

'Every celebration is different,' my mother says, 'but each is beautiful in its own way.'

December 26, 2009|Hector Tobar

This is a time when some people want to leave Los Angeles.

They dream of heading off to snowy locales-- Manhattan, frosty Alpine cabins, picturesque New England towns.

"I feel left out," my 13-year-old son says after hearing a radio report on the blizzard descending on the Midwest this week. He's never actually had a "white Christmas," but he knows what they're supposed to look like: ice on the windows, frozen sidewalks and falling snowflakes.

Blue skies and sunshine set the scene for my son's holiday show on his last school day before break. He and the other kids sang carols on our school's little outdoor stage in weather headed toward a daily high of 81.

They sang about "dashing through the snow" and "walking in a winter wonderland," and celebrating a Hanukkah where "in the window you can see the glow of my menorah on newly fallen snow."

The list of songs about California Christmases and Hanukkahs isn't long. One by the Disney-created Cheetah Girls includes the forgettable line: "We never made a snowman, but we're working on a suntan."

You won't catch me caroling that anytime soon.

And yet I refuse to believe that sweating Santas and lighted palm trees somehow make my Christmas less authentic.

Christmases with tamales and temperate weather are the only kind I really know.

My L.A. Christmas memories are bittersweet. Like a lot of L.A. kids, I had one of those childhoods in which people were always entering and exiting, thanks to divorces, remarriages and untimely death.

The cast of characters was never quite the same from one year to the next. Even the food was always changing. The one constant was the jumble of it all -- with different cultures celebrating side by side and blended together.

My parents arrived from Guatemala in the 1960s. Santa Claus wasn't the powerful global brand he is today and the bearded St. Nick was foreign to them. So was the U.S. custom of Christmas presents.

In Guatemala, the climax of the holiday season is Christmas Eve, when, at the stroke of midnight, people leave their homes to hug their neighbors. Guatemala City fills with the sounds of thousands of firecrackers.

For my parents on those first lonely Christmases in L.A, there were few friends to hug and no firecrackers. "It took me years to get used to that silence," my mother tells me.

We lived in East Hollywood and I remember one or two chilly nights out on Hollywood Boulevard watching the Santa Claus Lane parade pass a few blocks from our apartment. Santa Claus cruised over the asphalt on a wheeled sleigh with an escort of horses, cheesecake elves and some movie or TV star like Ernest Borgnine as the grand marshal.

Then my parents got divorced and my mother remarried. I moved to the Eastside and I learned what a Mexican American Christmas looks like. I was about 10 when my step-grandparents, the Velascos, taught me the joys of turkey dinners, tamales and football games on the crab grass. At their East Los Angeles home, I got my first Christmas stocking.

I was an awkward adolescent when my father remarried into a Jewish family. I soon got two new siblings and went to my first Hanukkah celebration. The Gelfands took me into their Lakewood home and I watched my little sisters light the menorah.

I was a teenager when I gave away my mother at her third wedding. Then the Dotsons took me into their home for a WASP Christmas; my new relatives were Whittier natives, and they wore tartan scarves and sweaters with reindeer on them. At their house, we drank cider and ate pie.

"Every celebration is different," my mother says, "but each is beautiful in its own way."

I'm thankful to all those Los Angeles clans -- the Velascos, the Dotsons and the Gelfands -- for accepting me, a stranger, into their families at various awkward moments of my childhood.

To me, their different celebrations all conveyed the same message: things might change, young man, but the adults around you will always try to build a peaceful home for you.

Looking back, I was lucky to be born in L.A., a city filled with newcomers and transplants.

People here are more used to sharing and mixing their cultural rituals.

When I got married, I became part of the Espino family. I learned several decades of L.A. Christmas stories going back to 1920s, many of them taking place in the home of Conrado Espino, the aging family patriarch who arrived in L.A. fleeing the Mexican Revolution.

My sister-in-law Lulu Garnica Espino remembers the sunny Christmas holidays in the 1970s, when she was a girl running in the small orchard behind her grandparents' home in El Sereno.

"They had a tiny house so the kids all ran outside and came in to eat in shifts," she told me. "I never remember a holiday when we were cooped up in the house because it was cold outside."

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