Christmas in the Santa Monica Mountains

Christmas 1917. A young Robert Hutton took these photos of his Christmas vacation in Topanga in 1917. The album, now in the Ernest Marquez Collection at the Huntington Library, shows Hutton and his friends hiking in the canyon and relaxing at his family’s cabin. Photos courtesy of the Ernest Marquez Photograph Collection, Huntington Library

The earliest account of Christmas in the Santa Monica Mountains appears to be one published by Frederick Hastings Rindge in his 1895 book, Happy Days in Southern California.

Rindge describes his ranch house in Malibu festively decorated with boughs and wreaths of toyon berry and the air of holiday anticipation within the walls of a household with young children in it.

“There are hurried footsteps in the morning, each hastening to be the first to bid ‘Merry Christmas’ to others,” Rindge writes. “There are interchanges of kind words and gifts, if the Christmas Eve tree has not done its duty the night before. There is the family worship and the singing of old Antioch and Hanover, those two old Christmas hymns so full of glory. Then there is the great Christmastide fire, in the broad and deep fireplace; a real Christmas fire, crackling and roaring in gladness as it offers its tribute of holiday cheer, around which we gather after a happy dinner of a home-fattened turkey, that had unconsciously been preparing himself for us during a fortnight, to keep company with the cranberries from Cape Cod. How proud a man is to dine off what he himself raises!”

Although the simple pleasures Rindge describes would have been shared by many of his neighbors, he wasn’t a typical settler. A wealthy New England philanthropist and industrialist, Rindge purchased the entire Topanga Malibu Sequit Rancho—more than 17,000 acres—in 1892. He was a poet and a romantic, as well as a canny businessman, and his writings reveal a deep love for the wild beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains. His book, however, is also a real estate infomercial for East Coasters, and a new flood of settlers was about to arrive in the Santa Monica Mountains. This wave of new arrivals weren’t real estate investors or gentleman farmers enticed by the promise of orange groves; they were homesteaders seeking to stake a small claim of their own.

 In 1889, the federal Land Office in Los Angeles began to open the last “free” lands on the West Coast, including parts of the Santa Monica Mountains. In 1895, Congress passed a new act, making smaller sections of land available.

For settlers like Matilda Ellis, a 60-year-old widow who arrived in Calabasas in 1885, and staked a claim on 10 acres near Stunt Road and Mulholland, or Lillie Svenson, an immigrant from Norway who received a land patent in Topanga in 1910, the Santa Monica Mountains must have sounded like the Promised Land. The reality for most was backbreaking labor and challenges that included wildfire, drought, bandits and cattle rustlers, and the lack of modern conveniences like electricity, running water, and medical care.

Most homestead Christmas dinners in the Santa Monica Mountains were more likely to feature beans—the main crop grown in the area—than cranberries. It was a tough life, but the homesteaders looked after each other. Rindge describes filling Christmas baskets of food to carry on horseback “to the neighbor whose stores were scant.”

In the Yerba Buena District at the western end of the mountain range, homesteaders made the perilous trip down from the mountain to buy dry goods and staples like flour and sugar only a few times a year, but Lauretta Houston, who often made the two day trip to collect the mail for the community, made sure the children had Christmas treats like penny candy. The Houston family always transported their piano—the only one on the mountain—down to the one-room Decker school house at Christmas to provide music for holiday festivities.

Happy Days in Southern California, the only source we could find for a description of an early Christmas in the Santa Monica Mountains.

In Topanga, families also gathered at the school house. A 1907 article entitled “Quaint Life of Topango Canyon,” written by Cloudsley Johns for the Los Angeles Times, describes monthly assemblies when “the dwellers in the canyon gather in the Garapatos schoolhouse to show what each can do to amuse the others.”

The night of the full moon was always chosen, Johns wrote, to enable the merry-makers to return safely home on the narrow mountain roads. It’s easy to imagine the settlers described by Johns—including all 17 of the Santa Maria family’s children, celebrating the holidays with music and dancing. 

Topanga settlers had an easier time getting supplies and transporting goods to market than mountain settlers in more remote areas. Civilization was a three-hour ride from the heart of the canyon, as opposed to a whole day’s journey or possibly two, depending on the tides along the coast route. Year-round water also helped support a more robust community and more diverse crops.

Johns’ article states that “almost everyone” in the canyon raised chickens, ducks and turkeys, some also kept goats, and others tended bees and sold honey. A 1910 Los Angeles Times article describes a special variety of apple grown in the canyon, Beitgheimer, “handsome in appearance and very fragrant.” Lille Svenson planted four acres of grape vines and became locally famous for the grapes she grew. The Greenleaf family grew Bartlett pears. There would have been more than just beans at a Topanga holiday feast.

For wealthy residents like the Rindges who lived in town and kept their country retreats for weekends and holidays, Los Angeles offered a dazzling array of holiday delights, including imported delicacies like the New England cranberries, but also toys and gifts, pageants, carnivals, parades and plays.

In 1890, the talk of the town was “The Electrophonicon,” billed as “the Latest European Musical innovation,” featuring “Zola, the daring aerial artist; Aerolita, the great illusion; Mme. Andre, with her performing tropical birds; Beatty, the clever Musical Clown; and Prof. Alberti, a ventriloquist of merit.”

As the name indicates, electricity was all the rage. Families like the Rindges could afford the new electric holiday lights that Edison debuted in the 1880s, and that became a national sensation in 1894, when President Grover Cleveland used them to decorate the White House Christmas tree. Most homesteaders in the Santa Monica Mountains had to make do with candles. Electricity wouldn’t arrive in the more remote parts of the mountains until the 1940s.

A photo album that belonged to longtime Topanga resident Robert Hutton as a young man includes images from a 1917 Christmas that reveal a world that looks more like the 19th century than the 20th. Hutton, a senior at Santa Monica High School, snapped photos of himself and his friends climbing Topanga’s distinctive rock formations, posing in ten gallon hats with six shooters, and reclining in front of a tiny cabin during Christmas vacation in 1917.

Topanga Postmaster James Craig, photographed by Robert Hutton at Thanksgiving 1917.

There’s a portrait of Topanga’s postmaster, dated Thanksgiving 1917, and snapshots of Topanga pioneer families, like the Greenleafs, spending Christmas at home in the canyon in much the same way they did in the previous century, and in some ways, mountain residents still do.

Electricity, roads and water brought changes to all of the communities established by settlers, but the tradition of coming together to share the blessings of the season and the beauties of canyon and coast continues to be deeply rooted in the local mountains. 

This is a community that embraces more holidays and customs than previous generations could have imagined, while continuing to keep alive an abiding spirit of peace and goodwill.

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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