Christmas in California: Tradition & Transformation

by Isis Quan

While British figures like Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria, as well as Germans and other central Europeans, were architects of Christmas ceremony and iconography in 1840s Europe, Christmas in greater Los Angeles was instead driven by its Spanish and Mexican heritage. Bearing almost no resemblance to its European cousins, Christmas in California lacked many of the traditional trappings that we associate with the holiday today. Gifts were not given, Santa Claus was unheard of, and decorating an evergreen would have seemed absurd. However, Christmas in California still had its own regional cheer.

Household Christmas Stories, edited by Charles Dickens. 1855-58.

Christmas celebrations in Mexican California were religious in nature, starting with a midnight mass. However, the immensity and pageantry of their masses were of a caliber that we rarely see today. The region’s residents would come together to celebrate the birth of Christ, dressing in their finest and bringing with them all the necessities for a grand fiesta. Christmas celebrations lasted late into the night and dancing, feasting, and games often spanned across several days.

Nativity plays remain a popular way to celebrate Christmas. Historically, the plays follow the biblical narrative, but nativity plays in California, like Los Pastores, often deviated from the standard biblical narrative in favor of a more medieval flair for the dramatic. This break with the biblical norm didn’t necessarily sit well with new American or European arrivals, such as William Robert Garner, who denounced it as a farce that,

“Intended to represent the adoration paid by the shepherds to our Savior at this birth; but there has been introduced a certain dramatis personae which entirely destroys the effect.”

While it may not have met the approval of outsiders, for locals it must have been a sight to see as esteemed members of the community, like Pío Pico, donned costumes to take on the persona of characters like Lucifer (though perhaps having a politician like Pico play the devil wouldn’t seem out of character for some).

Christmas was also the start of cascarones (hollowed out eggshells filled with fragrant water, colored paper, or ribbons) season in California. The breaking of cascarones over unsuspecting heads was a tradition of Mexican origin that would run from Christmas until Easter. The tradition was alien to most new arrivals to the territory. Garner remarked that,

“A person can scarcely enter a house at present, where there [are] any young females, without being saluted with […] a Herculean blow that will set his ears ringing for a whole day.”

California clearly did not resemble Dickens’ model for an ideal Christmas. Like many of its people, the holiday was a mixture of both Spanish and Mexican cultures. What it lacked in familiar traits, it made up for with its uniqueness. Christmas in 1840s California was a holiday where both community and Catholicism were integral.

Traditional Spanish and Mexican era Christmas customs were not able, however, to continue avoiding outside influence. As suggested in Garner’s quotes, at least some newcomers to the region found the Christmas celebrations to be strange and alien. While Garner and others might have held fast to their notions of Christmas, there were Americans and Europeans who adapted to local traditions. With the onset of the Mexican American War and the discovery of Gold in California conditions changed dramatically. As the influx of new people grew, so, too, did the tendency to celebrate Christmas in a more American, and therefore, European manner.

In 1857, the Christmas tree that Queen Victoria popularized in the 1840s made its first appearance in Los Angeles. William H. Workman wrote of the tree, stating that “families enjoyed in common the gaily decorated tree which had been so lovingly prepared by the many willing hands of friendly neighbors.”

He also explained that the idea for the communal tree was driven by a Dr. Carter and his wife, who were, notably, English, and observed that the focus of the holiday had shifted to the children, calling them the “honored guests.” The introduction of the first regional Christmas tree still had some decidedly Mexican Californian traits. The tree was nestled in a Los Angeles community of adobe homes, and it was absolutely still a community affair. It would still take some years before the tree would become commonplace within the private home.

As new traditions were introduced, others faded away. Christianity still played an important role, but the holiday’s focus had moved more towards Christmas cheer and benevolence, rather than the birth of Christ. Another tradition that began to vanish was the fiesta. The leaning towards British and central European trends caused the fiesta to give way to the Christmas ball; an event that was far more exclusive than communal fiestas had been.

An image of what an American Christmas might have looked like in the 1860s, complete with Christmas tree, games, gifts, and sleigh.

The flood of new immigrants to greater Los Angeles, coupled with America’s tendency to look to England and central Europe for its pop culture trends, meant that Christmas was a rapidly changing holiday in the 1850s. However, it wasn’t until the 1870s that Christmas in California really began to resemble a Victorian Christmas. Ads selling Christmas trees were found in most newspapers on account of the family tree becoming a holiday staple. Gift giving became far more common for the holiday, and you were expected to provide gifts not just for children, but also for friends and family. Father Christmas and St. Nicholas had fused to form Santa Claus in the 1840s, and by the 1870s he was widely popular. The beginnings of the commercialization of Christmas were taking root, but one other trend was burrowing just as deep. Charles Dickens would have been proud of the legacy his Christmas Carol left. By the 1870s California had embraced the “holiday spirit,” and Christmas had become about giving. Aside from all of the ads for the holidays, papers featured articles about charity events held to benefit those less fortunate. Although Mexican Californian traditions still continued in some predominantly Latino communities, Dickens’ Christmas had captured the hearts and minds of the masses, who were mainly American and European.

By the 1870s, Santa Claus had developed some of the motifs of his modern day persona.

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