Cognitive dissonance, SoCal style: The calendar says it’s November, but heaven swears it’s April, maybe even July.
It is Thanksgiving. And for more than a hundred years, pilgrims from the East and Midwest to this Pacific coast have sometimes been a little perplexed about how to implement a vacation that was built around the original pilgrims of the Atlantic coast 400 years ago.
“Here in the West, no one feels much excitement about Thanksgiving Day,” Times columnist Harry Carr said of the holiday lull in 1923. “You have to be somewhere near the footsteps of the Pilgrim Fathers to get any meaningful meaning out of Thanksgiving. “”
But we manage somehow. We suffer from a snow-free, puritan-free surfing, climbing and skiing holiday – when the smoke doesn’t necessarily smell like burnt turkey, but possibly bushfires.
In 1957, Thanksgiving Day marked hunting season for the West Hills Hunt Club – hunting on horseback, wearing top hat and riding coat – with the “Blessing of the Hounds.”
The uniquely American version of Thanksgiving has stricter rules than Christmas. Christmas celebrations are global and flexible; Thanksgiving is a day of fixed, ritualized customs no matter where in the United States it is celebrated.
There’s a charming 2000 film called “What’s cooking?” It’s set in Los Angeles, with one hell of a cast playing four families – black, Vietnamese, Jewish and Latino – who bring their own diverse flavors of life and food to the Thanksgiving table in the midst of family breakouts and cooking disasters. They accomplish the impossible: a perfect Thanksgiving. (The mix of scenes of four families’ mashed potato techniques is classic.)
For a long time, in Los Angeles as elsewhere, Thanksgiving was primarily a religious holiday, an insider tip captain Puritan hat to the stubborn Calvinism of the Mayflower crowd. The Times routinely printed Thanksgiving sermons by well-known local pastors at astonishing length.
This at least felt like home to hundreds of thousands of Protestant Central Americans who emigrated to Los Angeles and built white, clapboard, New England-style churches in the land of the Spanish missions.
In 1896, the Times patted its city on the back: “It was wise foresight when it first ordered that the Thanksgiving Day service should be held in Turkey.” Grace before the flesh is particularly appropriate on this special holiday…before the dinner, [the ordinary American] can be pious – after dinner he is in a coma.”
In 1899, on the cusp of the 20th century, the Times cleared its throat to announce a new secular civic celebration. “Thanksgiving will be celebrated like never before in Los Angeles this year. … Until now, Thanksgiving has been one of the quiet holidays of the year, dedicated to church services and, of course, football.” But now “there will be a military and civic parade, patriotic exercises on the bike path, a football game, golf, a banquet, give a spiritual concert and a variety of other sources of entertainment and enjoyment.”
California’s Thanksgiving celebrations and re-creations celebrated Massachusetts’ Native Americans, but went right past them Native American Indians who had been all but wiped out from the demographics of the city. A group of white pioneers marched in the 1899 Thanksgiving parade; It was called, without irony, “Native Sons of the Golden West.”
A turkey asks a valid question: “What should I be grateful for?” – in this vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.
In a 1923 postmarked card from Morrison’s collection, a correspondent asks her brother – who, given Olaf College’s St. Postal address – “Would you like to eat turkey?”
Thirty years later, the Thanksgiving holiday in LA was frankly secular and unique to us: sports, games, picnics in the Beacha “Fairyland” parade downtown, warm-weather driving through the hills.
The studios gave everyone the day off. In 1940, the Times diligently documented the vacation activities of movie stars: Broderick Crawford Heading to Honolulu for a honeymoon; roommate Franchot tone oath Burgess Meredith host a dinner for friends; Errol Flynn Driving too Palm Springs for tennis; Donald Crisp oath George Brent on the water on their respective yachts; Barbara Stanwyck oath Robert Taylor Golf with Jack Benny and his wife Mary Livingstone; and that Bela Lugosi “Go to his mother’s for dinner.” (That’s your straight line, amateur comics – go for it.)
On Thanksgiving 1929, a month after Wall Street laid an egg—as Variety headlined it—the Times noted in numerous columns that free food was being served to the “unfortunate” at the Salvation Army, the Midnight Mission, and Sunday churches. Years ago, food was given away in poor neighborhoods, and veterans at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Sawtelle – now the VA site in Westwood – were generously fed.
The county jail’s Thanksgiving menu made headlines, probably because of who would eat it.
Sweet potatoes, fruit jelly and roasted pork – no turkey – were served to all inmates, from the bottom bag to the celebrity wing and its residents:
- Alexander Pantages, the millionaire theater magnate convicted of raping a 17-year-old dancer.
- Asa Keyes, once LA County district attorney who sent men to the cell where he now sits; he was convicted of bribery.
- Leo (Pat) Kelley, back in town from death row at San Quentin, for re-sentencing on the lesser charge of manslaughter and for the murder of his older, married “cougar” girlfriend. Kelley said he gained 25 pounds at San Quentin — and he probably gained a few more on Thanksgiving.
This episode is a clear contender to win the sweepstakes with the most Thanksgiving incidents in Southern California ever. But if my vote were the only one, the palm would have to go to this one from Thanksgiving 2000.
Wendy P McCawa woman we dubbed a “billionaire environmental activist” bought the venerable one Santa Barbara News-Press in 2000 and as recently as last July, declared the newspaper bankrupt and closed it.
At Thanksgiving the first year, an editorial urged locals to donate generously to a local food bank, but with an asterisk: No turkey, please. “We cannot in good conscience recommend the continuation of a tradition that involves the death of an unwilling participant…Donate a turkey if you wish, but you may also donate any other goodies associated with a holiday meal.” “Beans and rice are a good protein substitute for turkey.”
Not all Santa Barbara residents took kindly to the proposal, and to show their displeasuredonated 700 more dead turkeys than the food bank requested.
Explaining LA with Patt Morrison
Los Angeles is a complex place. In this weekly feature, Patt Morrison explains how it works, its history and its culture.