"KMPC... Los Angeles," That was one of my first memories of Christmas. It was sung out over the airwaves during my journey home in the car with my family. Christmas in California is not like anything I have ever experienced anywhere else on the globe. While most of my cousins and family were knee deep in snow or sleet I was pondering whether or not to wear shoes much less sox. Sunshine and heat waves are not unheard of during the alleged winters of SoCal. During the drives from Grandmother's house to home my siblings and I listened to the DJ's of KMPC announce sightings of Santa and his reindeer. With the seasonal fog that could blanket our world I knew exactly why Rudolph's nose glowed. It was only years later I found out that the song writer of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Gene Autry, was living in Southern California while writing those verses. Makes perfect sense to me.
Christmas Eve day would start early in the day with the journey up to my grandparents' house listening to the teasing of Clark Race, Dick Whitinghill, and Geoff Edwards, they would tell us Santa was approaching and we had better be good. Christmas songs played the whole day and we would sing along in our off key children voices, excited by the mystery of Santa and the flying deer. It was on our return trip, full of holiday foods and gifts that had been frantically opened and enjoyed stacked into the trunk that the radio would play more songs and tell us of more sightings of Santa. The radio was listened to carefully for clues where Santa was flying at that very moment. We weren't home yet and were always a bit afraid we would not be carefully ensconced in our beds in time. Could Santa deliver our gifts if we hadn't got home yet? We never asked the question aloud for fear of a "No, Santa is going to skip you this year," reply. The DJs that stuck in my head were the late night voices. Gary Owens and Wink Martindale would reports on where they saw Santa and make us kids look to the skies. White drifts of fog notwithstanding we would peer through breath frosted windows while vying for the best spot to see the red blinking light in the dark sky. It never failed one of us would spot a red light and call out that we saw Rudolph.
Christmas was only complete the next morning with Dad's camera in our faces recording the excitement of our five am wake up so we could see what Santa put under the tree while we slept. Ah, the Christmas tree. I remember so many of our trees. Trees did not come out of boxes purchased at Target or delivered by some exotic locale. No, it was the adventure of late nights in pine drenched lots that made up my childhood. The verse from a song that sums up my tree lot experiences goes something like, "It never rains in Southern California, it pours. Man, it pours." And that would be correct. It never just misted, lightly rained or did something reasonable like just have a dense fog covering all living creation, oh no, instead it would usually rain. I mean the real rain-drenching to the skin of us small urchins type of rainfall. Not something one forgets. Walking through the trees stomping in the puddles littered with real pine needles. The rain would bring out the fresh scent of pine needles and made me feel like Christmas was near. Some of the salesmen would give us kids bits of branches they had trimmed off the trees and I would clutch the bough in my hand smelling the twig while walking amidst the towering trees. Some lots had the trees all set up in regimented rows of various pricing and size, while the ones I liked the best had the trees strewn around with stacked of twine wrapped trees straight off the truck waiting to be opened. Those were always exciting and fresh. It was like getting to open an early Christmas present.
There were many lots scattered around Los Angeles for us to peruse. We would load all four kids and dad, always, mom sometimes, into our family car and head out one rainy night. It if wasn't raining when we left home by the time we stopped it was pretty much certain there would be buckets dumping on us from the heavens. Then we would head out into the ill lit up lot to see what was hiding within the chain linked perimeter. The first few rows always had those heavily flocked white trees. They still disturb me to this day. Why would anyone cover that lovely pine scent with that white cotton candy fluffy spray? Then there was the decade of pink flocked trees! I can't even begin to tell you how that made me feel. Queasy is the least of it.
Now the choices of trees offered in the various lots were something critical to the proper decisions all families must make. There are many schools of thought on proper Christmas trees. I think small wars have been fought and lost over such choices. Of course, our family Christmas trees were always Douglas Firs. Not Noble or Plantation but Douglas Firs. We went from muddy puddle filled lot to white flocked tree lot looking for the perfect pine. Mom had final say and we knew that trees in those poorly lit lot could hide flaws. Then there were always the trees still tied up in the back. The lot man would bring out his knife and cut the twine off letting the trees snap open for our pleasure. We would head back there shaking trees along the way to see what there was to offer. We knew that shaking trees would show us how fresh a tree was. The ones that were old and dried would shed upon being vigorously shaken. I don't think that the tree lot folks expected pre-teen kids to shake any tree that caught their eyes. We shook at will regardless of the social norms. At a very early age we kids would walk around and dissect what was being hawked. My older brother was wise beyond his years and would often have the tree salesman ready to practically give him the tree before we left. We were all picky and it took many nights to find the tree.
Once picked the ceremony of strapping to the car commenced. We children didn't even use seatbelts back then but dang if that tree wasn't tied to the car with more twine than imaginable. When on the road our jobs as children would be to watch the tree sway above the hood and pray it stayed on. The next step was the unlashing of the tree as we scrambled to put the tree in our family room. The tree would be screwed into a metal water dish. One of us would usually try to help dad hold the tree straight while the mild swearing commenced during the skewering of pine bark into the proper place. Mom would offer comments like, "Are you sure we want that hole facing the family room?" Inevitably once the boughs dropped there would be a small hole of nakedness that needed to be rotated out of sight. The Douglas Firs of my childhood were the ones grown naturally and not overly shaped or trimmed. Our trees had character. At times too much character but that was part of the ritual.
Then we would carefully apply the lights. Santa was the one who got to do the heavy decorating. His job was to put up our carefully nestled family ornaments followed by the strands of lead tinsel. Plastic silver tinsel has nothing on lead tinsel. "Real" tinsel has since been outlawed but my childhood Santa kept our trees silvery and bright. My dad still had a few boxes of stray strands of good lead tinsel we put onto our current family fake tree. There was something about a tree covered with silver metal strands of lead that made it seem like winter for us. We had no idea how icicles looked in nature hanging down after a winter's storm but the slivers of silver swaying in the tree made us smile.
Not everyone had real trees. My Christmas Eve Grandparents had an aluminum tree. That was the first 'fake' tree I ever remember seeing. The aluminum tree was no more than four or five feet tall. It had a spotlight. The spotlight was shown through multi colored films-red, blue, yellow and green that slowly rotated around the light. The tree would glow red first then continue through the colors on the dial. We kids all still remember it. It defined Christmas Eve for us.
Not all my cousins got to go on the trips to the tree lots. Another memorable tree was at my aunt and uncle's on the wall. Yes, on the wall. My aunt had six kids. She meant to get out early and pick out a nice tree but with all the kids and the shopping she was forced to head to the lots too late for a generous selection of pines. But she found a lovely Charlie Brown tree with a flat side that she brought home to the family. She figured with the proper rotation and use of tinsel and lights the misshapen tree would look okay. My uncle took one look at it and declared it flat. With that he stapled it to the wall. The kids were young and he didn't want them to pull down the ornaments or bulbs. I remember walking into the living room to see a tree suspended halfway up the wall. Seriously that was a tree that was worthy of mention in my holiday memories.
My sister has since threatened to do that with her kids. The memory of a tree suspended over the mantle was something me and my siblings still share to this day. She nevertheless found a solution this year with her two year old, she let him and his first-grade sister decorate all the lower branches so they would take pride in 'their' tree. So far it has worked.
Sadly the grandkids with various allergies to conifers keep my folks from going out to find live trees now. So our pine scent comes from candles and the lights hung on the branches are no longer the size of small Roma tomatoes. Bright white Disney twinkle lights have replaced the blue, orange, red and green beacons that used to adorn the limbs of the tree. All in all Christmas is still around but somehow the loss of heavy irregularly limbed trees seems to be a childhood memory lost for all time.