Christmas in La-La Land

Holiday magic in Los Angeles comes down to the thing that always sets California apart: the quality of light.

Chris Fabregas / Shutterstock

LOS ANGELES—A cold coming they had of it, T. S. Eliot’s wise men did. I think of that line on crisp, clear December nights in Los Angeles, when the towering, century-old palm trees make our neighborhood seem as if it could pass for the Fertile Crescent, or at least the close-by Paramount Studios backlot where White Christmas was filmed.

Christmas in the Mediterranean climate of Southern California is a surprisingly festive and moving setting for a son of the frozen Midwest. There are no drifting white flakes (unless in the fuzzy form of ash from the devastating seasonal wildfires), but there is a bracing, almost horizontal winter sunlight streaming through the windows.

At the first light of dawn—at dog-walking and kids’ carpool time—the mercury has dipped to the low 40s, and natives are bundled up as if for Nome, while transplants like me parade around in khaki shorts. By noon, the clichés of outdoor living are simple realities, and by dark, a fire is in order in the living-room hearth—abetted by that great California tradition, not a gas log but a gas rod fireplace starter for lighting seasoned oak and pine.

In nearby Beverly Hills, the trunks of the palm trees are wrapped to their chins in miniature white lights, as if they were pearls on the necks in a Modigliani portrait or a debutante’s long white gloves. The Christmas trees for sale on the corner lots—fresh from the Sierras or Oregon—are as green and fragrant as any New England fir. In Marina del Rey, the glittering nighttime boat parade is as enchanting as a Vermont sleigh ride. And, really, where else on Earth could you surf at breakfast, ski at lunch, and still be chilled enough to feel like caroling after dark?

Southern California has all the usual commercial excesses common to modern consumer society, of course. Christmas decorations in retail stores and public spaces go up the morning after Halloween, as they do elsewhere, skipping cruelly over Thanksgiving. The first real rains of the season, lifting oil from long-dry pavement, produce the traffic snarls and accidents of Atlanta in an ice storm. Most poignantly, the homeless people clustered on the sidewalks of Hollywood and in makeshift tent cities under freeway overpasses are sobering reminders that in a place of such overwhelming plenty, there is still no room at the inn for too many Angelenos.

L.A. was the birthplace of the most popular Christmas songs of the 20th century, many of which were written in blistering summer heat (and by Jewish composers). The songwriter Sammy Cahn remembered getting a phone call from his partner Jule Styne during one particularly hot spell, announcing that their client Frank Sinatra wanted a new Christmas song. Cahn objected; how could anything top “White Christmas,” or for that matter, their own “Let It Snow”? Styne persisted: “Frank wants a Christmas song.” So “The Christmas Waltz” was born, “frosted windowpanes” and all.

For me, Los Angeles at Christmas especially evokes that honey-voiced bard of the holiday season, Nat King Cole, who integrated our then-lily-white neighborhood in 1948. His reward? An ugly racial slur burned into his front lawn, or staked on a sign in his yard (sources vary), and poisoned meat tossed into his garden, which killed his dog. In 1948, in California. When he died, in 1965, his funeral was held at St. James on Wilshire, the neighborhood Episcopal parish whose congregation is now a vibrant mix of Korean American, black, and Anglo worshippers—and his name adorns the local Post Office branch in what Eliot might call our “temperate valley.” Goodwill sometimes does win out.

Southern California’s bone-dry air and clear skies helped make it a center of modern American astronomy, and despite climate change and the inevitable air and light pollution of a sprawling megalopolis, it is still possible most nights to see the stars, or at least the lights of slow-moving planes headed for a landing at LAX. And in the age of Emmanuel or the era of Elon Musk, there is hope in the promise of the heavens.

A cold coming they had of it, 2,000 years ago, and a cold coming we so often seem to have of it today. But in the clean winter nights of this bustling, semiarid, overpopulated, hyperkinetic coastal plain, we can still hear the quiet, and see the light.