The Homestead’s Holiday Exhibit: “Christmas in California”

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With our first weekend of holiday programming, courtesy of “Christmas Calamities,” completed and “A Weekend of Holiday Merriment” up on deck for next weekend, this is an opportune time to spotlight our “Christmas in California” exhibit now up in the Homestead Museum Gallery for the holiday season.

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Coordinated by our programs manager Gennie Truelock with support from our Public Programs and Collections staff, the exhibit features artifacts from our collection; boards with information and images discussing varying holiday traditions; interactive components such as a selfie wall with a Christmas tree on which visitors can place stick-on decorations before snapping their photos and an iPad with views of historic photos from the collection showing Christmas trees from 90 or more years ago; and a selection of children’s books about the holidays for guests to peruse.

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Text panels give brief information on the development of regional holiday celebrations from the Spanish and Mexican eras up through the early 20th century, spanning most of our interpretive period from 1830 to 1930.

As one panel notes, pre-American holidays featured religious feast day celebrations including attending a midnight mass, a fiesta including the smashing of cascarones (perfume or paper-filled eggshells), and a performance of La Pastorela or Los Pastores, recounting the visit of shepherds to see the infant Christ.

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Californio Arturo Bandini recalled that, while having decorated carts or wagons and displays of renowned horsemanship were common through the year, the performance of the shepherds’ play was only done during the holidays. We purchased a modern mask of the Devil, a character from the play who sought to dissuade the shepherds from visiting the infant Jesus.

In 1855, within several years of the American period’s beginning, a local paper noted that older traditions were dying out and two years later the first Christmas tree was put up in Los Angeles by a British-born doctor in an outdoor community locale.

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It was an event recalled by William and Nicolasa Workman’s nephew William Henry Workman, a future Los Angeles mayor and city treasurer as a “gaily decorated tree . . . so lovingly prepared” by neighbors in that area of town.

Later in the century, Christmas celebrations expanded dramatically with more families incorporating indoor trees, generally well-trimmed for those candles used to light up the tree and placed on tables; gift-giving; Christmas cards; holiday songs; and more.

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By the early twentieth century, Christmas pageants became common and a local example of great popularity was Lillian Burkhart Goldsmith’s “The Nativity.”  Goldsmith, a Jew and a vaudeville performer, put her skills to use in crafting an event that included some 400 community members and attracted about 15,000 attendees over a weekend starting with its 1915 debut.

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As for the artifacts on display, they include an 1850 magazine drawing of the British royal family’s Christmas tree; an 1874 letter to a member of the Temple family mentioning two outdoor community Christmas trees, one in Los Angeles and one at Rancho Santa Anita, in present-day Arcadia; a few snapshots of Christmas trees in American (one including a Japanese-American wedding party) from the late 19th and early 20th centuries; examples of pre-1930 holiday decorations; and a holiday event program and song book, both from the 1920s; and two late 1920s photos of outdoor “living trees” in Los Angeles.

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The Homestead is unusually positioned to be able to cover a wide period of time through the broad greater Los Angeles region in its interpretation and we bring that approach to our exhibits and programming about the holidays, so come out and partake of “A Weekend of Christmas Merriment” this coming weekend and enjoy our “Christmas in California” exhibit in the Gallery.



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