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“The Nativity Scenes are the most

important tradition in Santa Monica


and are why we have become
known as the ‘City of the Christmas
Story.’ ”
Ysidro Reyes, Master of Ceremonies, First Opening Ceremony

HERB SPURGIN: A MAN WHO EMBRACED A SPECIAL VISION


As Ysidro drove west on Santa Monica Boulevard to a
In 1953, Joan Wilcoxon, an actress and the wife of Henry second Chamber meeting on the subject, he realized that
Wilcoxon, an associate producer for Paramount Studios, the Nativity Scenes would serve the common interest of
approached Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce businesses. The Nativity would bring visitors who were
manager Herb Spurgin with the idea of a city Nativity potential shoppers into the community. When he made
scene. Herb, a tireless community supporter and former this appeal, Chamber members agreed to support the
mayor, immediately embraced the idea. project. At this time, Ernie Gulsrud, a past Chamber
president, became one of the Nativity’s most ardent
UNITING THE COMMUNITY supporters.

Herb set out to gain community support for the event


with the help of Ysidro Reyes, another businessman and
active Chamber member, who was excited at the
prospect. Ysidro’s great-aunt, Mrs. Arcadia Bandini
Baker, had donated the Palisades Park property to the
city in the 1890s. (Ysidro’s great-great-grandfather, also
named Ysidro Reyes, had built the first house in Santa
Monica at Second and Adelaide in 1838.) When the
possibility arose in 1953, Ysidro could not think of a
better expression of love for the community than
presenting the birth of Christ in what was and is one of
the most beautiful settings in the world.

Herb conferred with the churches while Ysidro


approached the businesses. In a groundbreaking
cooperative effort, eight churches and the Chamber each
adopted a scene and saw to the construction of tableaux
within the booths at Palisades Park. Even Beth Shalom
Temple wanted to sponsor a booth, but it was difficult to “Peace on Earth” by First United Methodist Church, first
decide on a fitting scene. place, Nativity Scenes Awards, 1977.

HOW THE CITY’S BUSINESS LEADERS BECAME INVOLVED A TRADITION IS BORN

While Herb Spurgin was approaching the churches, The initial pageant in 1953 opened in the evening, when
Ysidro Reyes and another businessman, Virgil Kingsley, lights flashed on to illuminate the tableaux. Next, a
set out to interest business people. “At first I couldn't get procession of choristers led a float with 60 actors from
to first base,” Ysidro recalls. “There was a hesitation by the park up Wilshire Boulevard to Miles Playhouse,
Chamber members to support the idea because of the where the Wilcoxon Group Players performed the 13th-
different faiths. In those days going to a different church century York Nativity Play under directors Joan and
to attend a friend’s funeral was frowned upon, let alone Henry Wilcoxon.
having churches work together.”
By 1958, the scenes had increased to 14 (the number
today). Having a variety of scenes distinguishes the
Santa Monica Nativity tableaux. Viewers of all ages – Pier arch. The new arch continues to proclaim Santa
parents and children, young and old – can walk (or Monica the “City of the Christmas Story.”
drive) south along Ocean Avenue and watch as the
“Greatest Story Ever Told” unfolds before their eyes. THE SINGING CROSS
The Annunciation, the birth of the Savior, the visit of the
Wise Men, and the boy Jesus at work in Joseph’s
carpenter shop – these and other events appear that
surround the birth of the Christ child who came to save
people from their sins.

THE GLORY OF THE CHRISTMAS PAGEANT

In the late 1950s and the 1960s, the Nativity Scenes


developed into a major Santa Monica attraction. Droves
of people visited the city to experience the true meaning
of Christmas. Reserve police officers directed traffic. The
scenes received considerable television coverage.

During this time, city government, businesses, and


churches partnered to support the scenes. The Women’s
Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and the city of
Santa Monica jointly sponsored financing and
construction. By 1960, the City Council voted to call
Santa Monica the “City of the Christmas Story” during
certain dates in December.

Children’s Singing Cross, 1968.

The singing cross became part of the opening ceremony


in 1960 and was one of the most inspirational parts of
the pageant. Each year an audition was held for a
children's chorus that would parade down Wilshire
Boulevard in the evening from Seventh Street to Ocean
Avenue in the shape of a cross. Each child wore a white
cape and red tie, and held a twinkling candle. Seeing 200
young children walking down Wilshire in the form of a
cross was a memorable event. According to Toni Miller,
a member of St. Monica’s Catholic Church who began
working with the scenes in 1963, the children's singing
of traditional Christmas carols was “as beautiful as can
be.”

THE TIDE TURNS AGAINST THE NATIVITY SCENES

A major shift in responsibility for financing the Nativity


Santa Monica City College’s stained glass window. Scenes started in 1978 after passage of the Proposition 13
property-tax limitation initiative. While the city had
Students from Santa Monica City College built a 20-foot never given any direct funding to the Nativity Scenes, it
stained-glass window proclaiming Santa Monica the had paid for electricity, had helped erect the booths, and
“City of the Christmas Story.” After the window was had underwritten revenue lost by bagging the parking
inadvertently broken, a sign with a reproduction of the meters in front of the scenes. After Proposition 13
window stood before the first scene through the 2003 passed, the tide shifted away from the city’s ability to
display. To replace that sign when it wore out, the finance the pageant. The first casualty from the lower
Nativity Scenes Committee commissioned a new budget was the singing cross. To avoid the expense of
gateway arch modeled after the famous Santa Monica
shutting down Wilshire Boulevard, the singing cross Doty of First Baptist Church were elected co-chairmen.
was dropped from the opening ceremony after 19 years. After Monsignor Wood’s death, Pastor Doty continued
as chairman through 1991. Pastor Clarence Crites of the
THE ATHEISTS AND ACLU THREATEN SUIT Santa Monica Church of the Nazarene became chairman
in 1992. Because of the close cooperation among the
In 1979, the next bomb came from outspoken atheist sponsoring churches through the committee, members
Madelyn Murray O'Hair and her American Atheists. agreed that the financial crisis that brought the
After she visited Santa Monica, she and the American organization about had been a “blessing in disguise.”
Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the City of the
Christmas Story over its involvement in helping fund
the religious pageant. Eventually, the city totally
withdrew its involvement for fear of incurring legal
expenses. Organizing the Nativity Scenes and paying
costs were left completely in the hands of the Chamber
of Commerce. Unfortunately, Chamber resources had
also declined at the time.

THE FINANCIAL CRISIS AND THE DARK DAYS

The financial crisis struck in 1979 just before the opening


ceremony. The city announced at the eleventh hour it
would not underwrite the loss of revenue for bagging
the parking meters and would require reimbursement in
advance. Bob Gabriel, a Chamber member and Nativity
supporter since 1955, remembers thinking of the
importance of the pageant for Santa Monica families.
“When my wife, Louise, heard that they could not open,
she said, ‘Shall we advance the funds?’” Bob donated the
necessary money for the pageant to open, and others like
Lawrence Welk gladly partnered when they were made Young members of the Lennon Family Singers lift their voices
aware of the need. in Christmas carols at the official opening of Santa Monica’s
annual Nativity Scenes, 1983.
In 1980 and 1981, several local churches and the
Chamber attempted to fill the gap left by the city. In
1981, the Chamber took on the responsibility for all the 1984 SUPREME COURT DECISION
financing. Only five booths were erected, huddled in the
This was not the end of the trials for the Santa Monica
center of the park. The booths were dilapidated. Money
Nativity Scenes. In Pawtucket, R.I., a Nativity scene had
was scarce. Some talked of not holding the display the
been presented since 1944. The ACLU persuaded two
following year. Then in 1982, due to excessive burdens
lower federal courts that the city’s official sponsorship of
on the Chamber, manager Jerry Jackson disavowed all
the crèche was unconstitutional. In 1984, however, the
direct involvement by the Chamber as an organization
Supreme Court ruled that cities could include Nativity
after nearly 30 years. This was the darkest hour for the
scenes in their Christmas displays without violating the
Nativity Scenes. It looked as if the City of the Christmas
First Amendment ban on any official establishment of
Story would lose its scenes and its title.
religion.
AN OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT Justice Warren Burger warned that Thomas Jefferson's
concept of a “wall of separation” between church and
What happened next was an astonishing outpouring of state (a phrase not in the Constitution) is “a metaphor”
love for this Christmas tradition. Businesses and and “not a wholly accurate description of the practical
individuals responded generously (and today still aspects of the relationship that in fact exists between
donate the bulk of the funds needed). When the church and state.” Burger said the Constitution does not
participating churches learned that the displays were in require “complete separation of church and state.”
jeopardy, many made special donations. A meeting of Rather, he said, “It affirmatively mandates
the churches was called in 1982 to determine how accommodation, not merely tolerance, of religions, and
finances could be raised to continue the pageant. It was forbids hostility toward any.
subsequently decided to start the nonprofit Santa “The city, like the Congresses and President . . . has
Monica Nativity Scenes Committee to raise funds and principally taken note of a significant historical religious
oversee the pageant. Monsignor Cyril J. Wood of St. event long celebrated in the Western World,” wrote
Anne’s Roman Catholic Church and the Rev. William
Burger. “The crèche in the display depicts the historical
origins of this traditional event long recognized as a
national holiday.”

This decision that Nativity scenes could be displayed on


city property validated the importance of the Nativity
Scenes to Santa Monica. The year 1984 was like a year of
resurrection as all 14 scenes were presented. It was a
confirmation to many of a return to the more
conservative and traditional values held by many.

ANOTHER CHALLENGE

Another threat to the Nativity Scenes arose in 2001,


when the city of Santa Monica passed a new Special Trinity Baptist Church members dressing a figure, 1984.
Events Ordinance that the city attorney said would
prohibit displays, including the Nativity Scenes, in city Long-time supporter Toni Miller perhaps sums it up
parks. The city allowed the 2001 display, however, best: “The people are the important thing, because they
under a grace period. After protests from the committee have kept the story alive and have kept it a part of our
and other scenes supporters, including some City community. The Nativity Scenes continue to show the
Council members, the city again allowed the display in important relationship between the community and the
2002, pending a revision of the ordinance. In 2003, the Church and also the camaraderie between the churches.
Nativity Scenes Committee, led by Pastor Crites,
supported the city attorney’s efforts to draft a new “Some of my fondest memories are when we were
ordinance that put the scenes on firm legal ground. After setting up the booths. So many young couples come by
discussion and fine-tuning, the City Council passed the with their children and say, ‘I remember when my
ordinance without a dissenting vote in September 2003. parents walked along the Nativity Scenes and told me
the story of Christ’s birth.’ I have heard that so many
THE JUBILANT CELEBRATION AND BEYOND times.”

The City Council’s action provided a fitting prelude to a YOUR HELP IS NEEDED
special Jubilant Celebration for the 2004 display, which
looked back at a half-century of the Nativity Scenes and Santa Monica and the Los Angeles area enjoy the
inaugurated the current arch sign. Also in 2004, Pastor heritage of the Nativity Scenes because of the sacrifices
Crites became chairman emeritus, and Hunter Jameson of many who have gone before, including co-founder
became the first lay chairman of the Nativity Scenes Ysidro Reyes and long-time supporter Bob Gabriel, both
Committee. of whom died in 2007. Now others maintain the legacy
of the Nativity Scenes and help to pass it along. If you
In 2009, the Nativity Scenes Committee decided to would like to join with them, we invite you to make a
undertake occasional midyear fund-raisers to pay for donation by mailing a check to the Santa Monica
special expenses. The Summer Benefit Concert and Nativity Scenes Committee at the address below to help
Dessert Night held in June 2009 in Cantwell Auditorium defray regular continuing expenses, including setup,
at St. Monica’s Church raised enough to start a fund for storage, insurance and mailing. Gifts are not tax
long-term structural repairs to the booths; to deductible, but we hope that you will be rewarded by
commission new scroll-type Scriptural narratives to knowing that your contribution will help maintain this
hang in each booth explaining its scene; and to pay for grass-roots community effort that proclaims in its
the scenes’ first Web site at distinctive way the true meaning of Christmas.
www.SantaMonicaNativityScenes.org.
Historical images courtesy of the Santa Monica Historical
THE TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS Society Museum, The Outlook and The Daily Breeze.

From the time television was a tiny box with flickering The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee
black-and-white pictures to the Internet age of today, P.O. Box 0648
through the efforts of many the Nativity Scenes display Santa Monica, CA 90406
has continued to proclaim the timeless message of God’s
peace on earth and good will toward men through the
coming of Christ.