The Jewish Joy of Christmas Lights

Posted: Dec 21, 2014 12:01 AM

Though we Jews do not share the religious aspect of Christmas with our Christian friends, we do share this great country and we do appreciate the level of acceptance and often times admiration we experience. Just because we do not share the same observance for the holiday, we can share the joy of certain aspects of the Christmas season. One way to do that is voyeuristically viewing the displays of Christmas lights.

Those of you from other parts of the country think that we in Southern California are all hedonists, frolicking at nudists colonies. But we have an edge over other parts of the country because we have many artisans as our neighbors (the ones who build all those movies sets) plus many other talented people.

This Christmas light tradition has manifested itself in possibly the largest single community sharing their joys with others. A section of Pasadena (yes, the one with all the roses) is Upper Hastings Ranch. The community was built in 1952 and a tradition was started as the community (made up largely of young families) found a way to connect together.

The tradition of mounting Christmas lights still survives 62 years later. It envelopes the entire community, consisting of 46 block segments and 1,130 homes. The point person for this project is Kathy Gregg, the current principal guardian of the tradition, who shared with me some of the history and details of organizing her many neighbors.

The decisions are made throughout the year as each block has a theme. The block captain coordinates efforts of a block which results in a decision as to whether they are sticking with the theme that worked the prior year or whether they want a fresh look for the coming year. Any new design does not mean extensive costs that are borne by each homeowner. Over the years they have received licenses from operations such as Disney or Charles Schultz for some of the themes they use; after all, what is Christmas today without Snoopy? The basic concept can be enhanced with additional lights or other seasonal decorations as long as they are tastefully done. Unfortunately, a few homeowners do not participate and don’t quite understand the joy provided to the droves of people who visit the community.

This is not just a homeowner project. Local students are drawn in, particularly from LaSalle High School, to help some of the older residents hang their lights and decorate their homes. Ms. Gregg told me she derives particular joy out of seeing the happiness that kids get from working on the project. She told me many come back from college to work on the project after they graduate from high school. After all, in the end it is a sizable project to light and decorate the 1,130 homes.

The community welcomes thousands of people every year who share the joy of Christmas lights. Karen Gregg tells me they often get contacted by tourist groups from foreign countries such as Japan who arrange part of their trip around visiting Hastings Ranch during the Christmas season.

We have been going to Hastings Ranch since our kids were really young. They had the joy of sharing the culture of our country during the time they went to Jewish day school. One year our daughter who was six at the time saw Snoopy in a manger and got very excited. She blurted out “What is Snoopy doing in the Sukkah (referring to the enclosure Jews build during the celebration of Sukkot).” When we got done laughing and appreciating that our young child was learning the Jewish holidays, we explained to her what a manger was all about.

Now that the kids are grown we drive to a favorite Italian restaurant in Pasadena before our trip to Hastings Ranch. We have carefully selected our Christmas CD’s for the tour of the area (I refer you to last year’s column on Christmas music.) Last year we had a guest – our daughter’s friend -- who sat in between her and I in the back. The Wife and #1 son fought over who was driving while the three of us sat in the back singing along with Dean Martin or Dave Koz and our other choices for the night. We went block by block, street by street, oohing and aahing in between songs, when we saw particularly good displays or we turned a new corner to see a theme of the street we particularly adored. We spent a couple hours completely immersed in the spirit of the season. We refrained from knocking on doors of the few houses that don’t participate to tell them how much we love the experience and encourage them to join joy the next year.

This year the community will be lit up between December 13th and New Year’s Day for a minimum of between 6 P.M. and 10 P.M. It worked out that we will be doing our trek tonight because of the timing of Hanukkah. We have our reservation at the restaurant. We just have to pick our music. Do we take new Christmas albums like Seth McFarlane or Pentatonix or old favorites like Ella Fitzgerald or maybe a little country turn like Brooks & Dunn? Oh, the challenges we face…

We thank Kathy Gregg and all the good people of Hastings Ranch for the joy they bring us every year. We wish all of you in your local community the joy we get from our experience enjoying Christmas lights and music. God Bless and have a healthy and joyous season.