“ The sun is shining, the grass is green. The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day, in Beverly Hills LA
But it’s December twenty fourth
And I am longing to be…… up north”
Mel Torme, Musical intro to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
No one feels much sympathy for Southern Californians at Christmas. While east coast temperatures hover just above freezing, a massive perennial winter high pressure system builds above the Great Salt Lake Basin creating a jet stream of warm winds known as Santa Anas. This holiday mistral swirls through the high deserts of Antelope Valley and sweeps down through narrow canyon passes, inland valleys and suburbs tumbling down to the shores of the Pacific ocean. In its aftermath the waves of wind leave LA basin residents with crystal clear vistas up to 100 miles, breathtaking days of 80 degree weather and tinder dry hills that predictably erupt into unpredictable wild fires. If you live in LA long enough, you also associate this weather pattern with the heightened potential for earthquakes. We referred to this double whammy period as “shake and bake time”. Yet, despite the threat of the ground opening up underneath us or a conflagration of epic proportions taking out half of the hillside neighborhoods, most Angelinos still stubbornly maintain a belief that Heaven’s phone number is prefaced with a 310, 714 or 213 area code.
If you are a surfer or an acolyte of George Hamilton, this weather pattern was made for you. However, if you were nine years old and dreaming of a white Christmas, you really felt like you drew the short candy cane. I recall listening intently to traditional holiday carols that waxed nostalgically of deep snow, candles in frosted windows, roaring fires (in fireplaces, not on the brush covered slope behind your house) and lush pine scented evergreens. I kept closing my eyes and wishing I would wake up in a river rock and log cabin with wood floors cushioned with animal skin rugs. When I opened my eyes, I disappointedly had not been transported from my Spanish style home with red tile floors. I would have traded ten sand castles for one snowman.
The build up to New Years with its annual celebrations of The Rose Parade and Rose Bowl did more for the economy of Southern California than any chamber of commerce advertising. As alabaster Big 10 fans spilled out of their motor homes from Columbus, Ohio to watch their team play the Pac 10 champs, they would rub their eyes in disbelief at the palms, citrus and eucalyptus swaying against aqua blue skies and the purple San Gabriel Mountains. Yes, this was the land of milk and honey, and when combined with wheat germ and yogurt, it was the birthplace of the first protein shake.
LA did have seasons. Two to be precise – – spring and summer. You never saw Fall. It happened out of the corner of your eye, like a night blooming Sirius. Usually around October 29th, the one deciduous tree in your neighborhood would have its leaves turn brown and then drop unceremoniously to the ground in the span of 12 minutes. It was as if someone had sprayed the foliage with Agent Orange the previous evening. Winter weather was an oxymoron. There was a possibility for rain and its arrival would have TV stations preempting the Vatican releasing the secrets of Fatima. As a storm approached, LA media would interrupt programming to warn of a “winter storm set to slam LA.“ The entire LA basin would be petrified at the thought of two inches of rain and an inch of snow above 4000 feet in the high mountains. There were mudslides from burned hills, eroded beach front property and treacherous freeways made slick by oil unwilling to mix with rain. It was Armageddon. But, the chaos was short-lived. The storms would move through quickly, teasing you like an advertisement whose fine print would read – “All storms not guaranteed to last more than 24 hours. Do not purchase sweaters, jackets or corduroy pants as it will never be cold enough to snow.”
I wanted it to snow. Snow made everything possible and snow made Christmas possible. Santa had a sleigh, not bicycle. He wore boots, not flip flops. I wanted to experience a White Christmas in the worst way. I wanted the thrill of watching a charcoal curtain of clouds pregnant with flakes tumble right over my home like a wave crashing across the base of a lighthouse leaving a foot of heaven in its wake. Snow purified everything. It fueled my nostalgic vision of Christmas past – – simpler times of Currier & Ives with scenes of caroling, sleigh rides and ice skating. Snow was the epicenter of every small town’s holiday celebration. The snow would mask the blight and blemishes of our hard lives. It brightened old buildings; it rejuvenated old towns and frosted tangled brown, denuded woods. It inspired Robert Frost to stop in his sleigh and ponder the deeper meaning of his life and then travel the final miles before he could sleep.
My meteorological prayers went unanswered for years with the occasional rain storm and cold snap as a pathetic tease. When the odd storm would work its way through LA prior to Christmas, the mountains would be frosted white at elevations over 3000 feet. I would beg my father to drive up to the snow — to explore, slide down steep, slick ravines and shudder with delight as cold winds bent pine boughs and blew diamond whisps across our faces. He would always balk. He hated snow. Growing up in the Midwest, he still harbored deep resentments of bitter, sub-zero days dressed in hair-shirt, woolen clothes and forced like a penitent pilgrim to navigate his way to middle school in Evanston, Illinois. Snow meant black ice, sudden colds, cabin fever and transportation disruption. I was in disbelief. I could not find the scar indicating where his soul had been surgically removed but it was clear to me that we were not of like minds. Perhaps I was adopted?
This fascination with snow and the holidays lasted well into my adulthood. I finally moved to a colder climate and experienced my first snow storm on a mid-December night. As the snow pounded Connecticut, I went out to buy a Christmas tree. The fact that my car almost went off the road three times, or that I was the only fool at the Kiwanis tree lot, or that rock salt literally ate my best pair of loafers would not soil this first memory. Even two weeks later as I was using disgusting week old kitty litter to throw under my stranded car in my icy driveway, the mood had yet to fade. It was snow. It was a foot deep and it was in my yard. It was MY snow. It would be a white Christmas. I was elated each night as I went to bed and gazed out like Good King Wenceslas on the blanketed woods.
It’s been four years since my rebirth as a New Englander. Other than an entire room in my cellar filled with oil tanks and large humming machinery which I continue to avoid because I have no idea what it is or what it does, I am slowly assimilating to the land of four seasons. I have also come to know the uglier side of Jack Frost and the reckless chaos he can wreak on my home and family. However, anything Old Man Winter dishes out before January 1 is a pardonable offense. We are finally neighbors and we are making up for lost Christmases. While some view winter as something to be endured, this romantic will take his children’s advice for ensuring a snow day by placing nine spoons under my pillow and wearing my pajamas inside out. As far as I am concerned, “Let it snow!”