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Santa Monica Clings to Christmas Tradition
By Jorge Casuso
December 5, 2019 -- For 66 years, Santa Monica's nativity scenes have survived -- weathering funding crises, changes in public taste and a near-fatal attack from atheists.
On Monday, the 14 quaintly anachronistic scenes -- created with mannequins and elaborate backdrops -- will line the perimeter of Calvary Baptist Church once again.
The dioramas, which will be on display until January 4, depict scenes from the early life of Jesus -- from the Annunciation and Joseph's dream to Herod’s court and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt.
Launched in Palisades Park in 1953, the life-sized displays were meant to "spread love in the community," according to the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.
The "groundbreaking cooperative effort" between eight churches and the Chamber of Commerce was also meant to lure holiday shoppers to the beachside city.
By the sixties, the nativity scenes had become an attraction drawing visitors to what became widely known during the holidays as "the City of the Christmas Story."
But funding woes ensued. In 1979, the City announced it would no longer take on the cost of bagging the parking meters that fronted the displays.
Local businessman Bob Gabriel donated the money the City demanded up front, winning the support of other well-known business and civic leaders, including bandleader Lawrence Welk.
Three years later, the Chamber dropped its involvement, marking "the darkest hour" for the nativity scenes, organizers said.
In an episode reminiscent of Frank Capra's Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life," the displays were saved by what nativity scene officials call "an astonishing outpouring of love."
Businesses and individuals donated funds, and the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee was formed to keep the tradition alive.
A sign Santa Monica could lose its Christmas story came in 2001 when the City Council approved a Special Events Ordinance that paved the way for prohibiting displays in city parks.
Members of the Committee sued the City charging the ban violated the members’ constitutional rights, but in November 2012 a U.S. District judge dismissed the lawsuit.
After 57 years in scenic Palisades Park overlooking the ocean, the nativity scenes found themselves without a home.
A year later, Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Ocean Park took them in, then in 2017 the predominantly black Calvary Baptist Church became their home.
By then, the wooden booths that had housed the displays for 30 years had rotted and were tossed and the scenes were whittled down from the traditional 13 to 12, then 11.
With no room for the display depicting the Holy Family seeking lodging at the inn, the scene was combined with the family's journey on the road.
This year, the full 14 displays depicting the true story of Christmas will line the south side of Broadway once again from 19th Street and continue south along a brief stretch of 20th Street.
Metered parking is available on the street and limited parking in the church.
To make a donation to support the nativity scenes click HERE
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