L.A. is home to a glut of holiday ditties, including Tom Lehrer’s ‘I Spent my Hannuakah in Santa Monica’ and bangers by Eazy-E and YACHT.
In July of 1945, Los Angeles was in the midst of a heatwave and songwriter Bob Wells was doing everything he could to stay cool. A swim in his pool and a cold beverage or two barely helped, so he decided to overcome the heat problem mentally, taking a seat at his piano and jotting down a few wintery images. Soon after, Wells’ writing partner, singer and songwriter Mel Tormé, arrived at Wells’ Toluca Lake home. Approaching the piano, Tormé looked at Wells’ notepad and found four lines:
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Jack Frost nipping at your nose.
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir.
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.
For obvious bright and sunny reasons, Los Angeles isn’t the first place people think of when they think of Christmas. While “The Christmas Song” was written in Los Angeles, nobody writes Yuletide carols about the City of Angels, right? Even when the Beach Boys did a Christmas song, it wasn’t about surfing or California girls, it was about a bobsled called the “Little Saint Nick.” However, quite a few holiday songs have been written about the City of Angels, including a Christmas song believed to be the world’s best-selling single.
One of the most famous L.A. Christmas songs is about Hollywood Boulevard. In 1928, businessman Harry Blaine and the Hollywood Boulevard Association decided to promote the boulevard as a shopping destination by temporarily rechristening a mile-long stretch of Hollywood Boulevard between Vine Street and La Brea Boulevard as “Santa Claus Lane.” A hundred living fir trees were placed along the boulevard and nearly every building on the stretch was covered in lights. To really capture the holiday spirit, Santa Claus made daily appearances riding down the street in a reindeer-pulled sleigh with a celebrity guest.
In 1931, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce decided to expand the Santa Claus Lane festivities into a full-blown parade. In 1946, singing cowboy Gene Autry served as the parade’s grand marshal. As he rode down the boulevard on his horse Champion, he heard children shouting “Here comes Santa Claus!” as the big man’s sleigh approached. The phrase stuck in his head and he and composer Oakley Haldeman soon set about immortalizing the Santa Claus Lane Parade, now known as the Hollywood Christmas Parade, in “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
While Autry went whimsical, other early L.A. Christmas songs went full schmaltz. Released within a year of each other, “Christmas in the City of the Angels,” recorded in 1979 by Johnny Mathis, and “Christmas in Los Angeles,” performed by Lawrence Welk and his chorus in 1980, hit similar beats. Both songs feature dated production and brief visits to destinations like Olvera Street and Santa Monica Bay. Interestingly, just as Autry blended the secular and religious when noting that “Santa Claus knows we’re all God’s children,” both songs start with images of contemporary L.A. Christmastime, but conclude that Los Angeles reminds the singers of the holiday’s biblical roots. For Mathis, “the blue Pacific becomes the sea of Galilee” at Christmastime, while Welk’s chorus extolls that “warm December breezes make her palm trees sway/The way they did in Bethlem that blessed day.”
Despite the saccharine sincerity Welk’s chorus is known for, “Christmas in Los Angeles” does have a few touches of irony. The song was written by the Sherman Brothers, the duo best known for writing Disney hits like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and opens with the wry line “I love Christmas in Los Angeles/The nearest snow is 60 miles away from here.” This set the tone for future songs that spoofed L.A.’s not-so-wintery holiday season. Comedic acapella group The Bobs’ 1996 song “Christmas in L.A.” finds the whole Southern California holiday experience ridiculous; with valet elves, lights twinkling through killer smog and “Snowballs made of styrofoam/Plastic trees in every home.” Of course, The Bobs are from San Francisco, so they’re probably not the best judge of our holiday traditions.
Others have made the L.A. Christmas experience about crimes and mischief. Released in 1992, Eazy-E’s “Merry Muthafuckin’ X-Mas” promises a not-so-silent night. On this six-minute tale of Christmas in Compton, Eazy and other members of the Ruthless Records crew tear through parodies of about half a dozen classic Christmas songs while cruising around in a candy red ’64. This is a song that features Eazy’s yuletide alter ego Santa Muthafuckin’ Wright gunning down a group of carolers and only gets more ridiculous and offensive from there. Suffice to say, you won’t hear this on KOST anytime soon.
Similar lawlessness can be found in Orange County’s cholo punk supergroup Manic Hispanic’s 2004 “Santa Got Run Over By My Chevy,” and the much tamer 1956 song “Christmas in Jail” by Manual Arts High School-based R&B group The Youngsters.
Lots of L.A. holiday songs are happy to “take your snow and shove it,” as L.A. native Rachel Bloom — and star of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — sings on “California Christmastime.” On that 2015 song, Bloom and the rest of the cast take the good with the bad, declaring that the state does Christmas right even if it means asking “What would Christmas be without/Historically low mountain snow causing staggering drought?” Even out-of-towners can see the appeal of a beachy holiday season. In 1963, fresh off a move to Los Angeles, comedian and kids TV show host Soupy Sales cut “Santa Claus is Surfin’ to Town” which celebrates a Santa whose jolly “Ho-ho-ho!” can be heard “from Malibu to Maine.” In the 1990s, musical comedy legend Tom Lehrer wrote a little ditty called “(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica” because “those Eastern winters, I can’t endure ‘em.” Not only is it a rare contemporary Hanukkah song, it’s also the rare case of a singer being excited to come out west for the holidays.
Synth pop band YACHT is responsible for the 5 Every Day app that recommends cool L.A. happenings and are co-founders of the Triforium Project, so naturally, their boosterism would extend to a Christmas song. YACHT’s joyous 2015 toe-tapper “Christmas Alone” is about how they’re “laughing at the suckers who still go home for Christmas” while going to all the best movies, dim sum places and taco trucks because the city is virtually deserted.
While YACHT revels in having the city to themselves, the quietness of L.A. during the holidays can also make a person lonesome. In “Christmas in L.A.,” the 2016 collaboration by The Killers and Dawes, a struggling actor questions his life choices as he spends another Christmas drinking pitchers of sangria at empty beach cafes, just like the drunken protagonist of the L.A. alt-country band the Groovy Rednecks’ 2007 track “Tinsel Town.” As Groovy Rednecks lead singer Tex Troester bemoans, “There ain’t no tinsel in this town/when you’re left here all alone.” Actor David Rasche’s tasteful 2010 song — also called “Christmas in L.A.” — finds him in a wistful mood. While he feels the distance between himself and east coast friends and family, he knows an L.A. Christmas isn’t too different. After all, “that little man, he flies here too/even if we’re far away.”
However, the most important song about Christmas in Los Angeles is one you probably already know by heart, “White Christmas.” There’s a debate about where exactly Irving Berlin first wrote the song in 1940, some say it was at the La Quinta Hotel in La Quinta, California; others have claimed it was a hotel in Beverly Hills, likely the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Arizona Biltmore Hotel has also laid claim, but that’s unlikely. Beverly Hills seems to be the safest bet because Berlin mentions the city by name in the song. You probably just sang “White Christmas” to yourself and found no mention of Beverly Hills in the lyrics. That’s because it’s in the song’s little-used original opening verse:
The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North.
While this verse is still sometimes sung — Barbara Streisand used it in her 1967 Christmas album, for example — it’s been largely forgotten. Berlin originally wrote this verse semi-satirically for the 1942 film “Holiday Inn,” a joke on the idea of Hollywood-types sitting poolside dreaming of their snowy hometowns. But the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred during the film’s production, leading to a need for a change of tone. As Americans readied for wartime separation, it wouldn’t just be Angelenos dreaming of a white Christmas like the ones they used to know. The palm tree verse was dropped and subsequently omitted from Bing Crosby’s recording, and the national mood made it the Guinness record holder for the world’s best-selling single.
So, people around the world are unknowingly stepping into the shoes of a sun-soaked Angeleno when they sing “White Christmas.” Crosby typically sang the song the same way in the 35 years between his original recording and his death. But in 1968 he participated in “The Hollywood Palace” Christmas show and sang the full lyrics, ultimately restoring Los Angeles’ place in the holiday standard — while our Christmases (blessedly) remain more colorful (and warm) than white.