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Lost L.A.: A symbol of Christmas reinvented

December 04, 2010|By Sam Watters, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Getting the holiday tree together? Here's how it often works.

Mom drives to the storage locker and exhumes cartons of ornaments exported by countries that put Santa's workshop out of business a decade ago. Dad drives a Tahoe to Home Depot, ropes an 8-foot pine to the roof. Back home, they drag the thing into the house, shove it to the front window, load on the glitter, string up the garland and plug in the twinklers that light up the room and the neighborhood. Kaboom. It's Christmas magic again.

But is it? Has a medieval symbol of the tree of life flourishing in the garden of Eden morphed into the spoils of environmental pillage glittering in a garden of secular consumption?

Maybe it's time to imagine a tree reflecting a dynamic 21st century. Here's one invented by an Angeleno.

Carl F. Curtis was a smart, conscientious guy. Ohio-born and Harvard-educated, he came to L.A. in the 1930s, inheriting control of the Curtis School, founded by his uncle Carl in 1925. That year, the U.S. was rich with Gilded Age plunder but lagged behind Europe in education. The Curtis family and concerned entrepreneurs across the country embraced progressive curricula. They believed that smaller classes combined with daily athletics would build a strong, educated democracy powering a robust future for America. Good that they did because that future was the Depression followed by World War II.

By December 1943, two years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Axis was gunning for what it called "total war." Eisenhower was supreme commander of an Allied force abroad, and civilians back home were stockpiling supplies for the year ahead. Keeping manufacturing at full pitch was top priority. The military restricted access to trees and the railroads that transported them from Northwest forests.

Innovation, stoked by taxes levied to pay for the war, energized Americans to solve all problems, large and small. With Christmas decoration and gasoline in short supply, Carl Curtis picked up branches in backyards and along back roads in L.A. At their modest ranch house, paneled with knotty pine, he and his wife attached a board to the living room wall. They nailed boughs to the plank, long branches at the bottom, short at the top. A string of lights, some colored balls and metal tinsel, easily stored in the attic closet, completed the half-a-tree vignette.

On Christmas Day, the Curtis family gathered around their 7-foot spruce. It had been designed, not grown. It was biodegradable, consumed no water and required little space. It was appropriate for the lean and mean times of the early '40s and was a symbol of values taught at the Curtis School: creativity, citizenship and personal sacrifice for the greater good.

Today, foreign threats, the role of taxes and the importance of education are topics that challenge us again, just when we need agreement on how to rebalance our way of life to compete against global powers and preserve the world that Carl Curtis assumed was his. Unlike the past, the costs of our wars aren't experienced day to day, but they are lurking in national debt and shrinking supplies of natural resources. As it was in December '43, sacrifice and know-how are required.

Small gestures can have deep meaning, so why not begin by going back to the future? This Christmas season, be a Carl Curtis. Reinvent the holiday tree as a symbol of thinking America.

Watters' column appears on the first Saturday of every month. Past columns are archived at

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