Short story: The true meaning of a Southern California Christmas

Studio City, Calif. _ Yesterday morning I slipped on my galoshes, donned my blue pea coat and wrapped up good and tight in my grandpa’s old red scarf for a long walk to the old Studio City fishing pond. I suppose I take living in Southern California for granted the way most folks take breathing or eating apple cobbler in a country market for granted. But during my walk yesterday something special happened, something wonderful. I rekindled my love of the Southern California Christmas.

Before I left the house, my wife met me at the front door. I don’t care what anyone says. Nothing beats a door for entering or exiting a house. Every time I leave the house my wife likes to joke and say, “Looks like someone’s using a door again.” Then we laugh and laugh. One of these days I’m going to leave through the window. Then what’ll she say?

Traditions are traditions because they’re good. That’s what I always say. Some traditions are unshakable. My wife and I have the same conversation every time I take one of my winter morning sojourns. She puts her hands on my shoulders and says, “It’s 70 degrees outside. You’re going to be pouring sweat in that coat. We live in Southern California.”

“Honey,” I tell her. “It’s the middle of December. I don’t know where you grew up (actually I do, because we discussed it briefly while we were dating), but where I grew up, in Ohio, the middle of December means it is cold outside.”

Then my wife cries. I never know whether she is crying out of joy or pain. I like to think it is joy, or maybe the pain of too much joy.


To walk down to the old Studio City fishing pond from my backwoods cottage you have to take Laurel Canyon Drive, or as we call it in these parts, Puddler’s Lane. At the bottom of Puddler’s Lane, next to the La Salsa restaurant, is a small country inn and restaurant called Gabe’s where the coffee is hot and the hospitality is on the house.

“Still making hot chocolate the old-fashioned way?” I always ask Gabe.

“Yep,” he shoots back.

And we laugh and laugh.

“How’s the wife?” he asks. “Still crying a lot?”

“Yep,” I shoot back.

And we laugh and laugh.

Then he leans in and says, “One of these days she’ll understand the true meaning of a Southern California Christmas.”

“Yep,” I shoot back.

And we laugh, but it is less laughing than the before laughing.

With hot chocolate in hand and the winter sun on my face, I continue down Puddler’s Lane, where I happen upon the parson and his wife.

“Parson Brown,” I say, “or is that a snowman pretending to be Parson Brown?”

“Sometimes I can’t tell,” Parson Brown’s wife says, a little too quickly, if you ask me.

“Good day to you,” the parson says. “Did you enjoy the sermon this morning?”

“Yes, I did,” I reply. “But who was that Jesus fellow you kept talking about? Is he new?”

Then the parson looks at me, hard, to see if I am joking.

Then I stare back at him in stony silence, so as not to betray the joke.

Then he smiles. Then I smile. Then the parson’s wife smiles. Then a sparrow passing right over our heads turns its head and smiles and we all see it smile and this makes us smile even more.

Nope, they don’t make ‘em like Puddler’s Lane anymore. And by ‘em, I mean streets. I wave hello to Big Jim at the blacksmith shop and the teenagers taking their smoke breaks outside the Vons grocery store and the choir in the town gazebo and the Asian girls working at the old mill, which is now a Panda Express.

Approaching the bottom of the lane I’m passed by scores of towheaded children running down to the old fishing pond with ice skates slung over their shoulders. You know you’re coming up to the old fishing pond because you can hear the yells and screams of the children. Most of them are yelling and screaming in disappointment because the pond is not frozen and never will be.

“Mithter,” one of them says to me, “when will the pond freethe? I want to thkate.”

“Little girl,” I say, “if you understood the true meaning of a Southern California Christmas, you would know the answer to your own question. Now run along, you little scamp.”

(Above: The old Studio City fishing pond on a blustery December day.)

Normally I sit and enjoy my hot chocolate and watch the local children spray paint colorful phrases like “Suck it, unfrozen pond!” onto the pond’s surface, which never works, because you can’t spray paint a pond.


But that’s not what happened on this Sunday.

On this Sunday I felt a hand touch my shoulder. I knew this hand. I knew it by its grip. I’m not one to brag – kind of a humble sort – but I am considered somewhat of a local expert when it comes to hand grips. Doesn’t pay the bills, but it passes the time in sleepy Los Angeles County, don’t you know.

“I’m going skating,” my wife says. And there she is, standing in her skates, not crying.

“Me too,” I say.

“You’re not wearing skates,” she says.

“It’s OK,” I say. “I’ll walk with you.”

With the joyous sounds of the choir from the town gazebo singing “Let It Snow” reverberating off the hillsides, we step off the banks of the grass, knees arched in space, time slowing, as we push our skates across the surface of the pond, and we glide and glide and glide.

For about one second.

Then we sink like fucking stones. Because, as the children have correctly noted, the pond is not frozen.

Knee-deep in muck and mire, we laugh and laugh and laugh, and it is more laughing than the before laughing.

And she says, “Honey, I now know the true meaning of a Southern California Christmas. We don’t have snow and ice. We have to make it ourselves. God bless us. God bless us, every one. I shot my eye out.”

Then that sparrow from before flies overhead and turns to us and smiles. And we smile back. Then the sparrow smashes violently into the trunk of a palm tree. But the sparrow is OK. Most of his injuries are minor and after a few minutes he is able to walk it off.

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

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