The History of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes

The City of the Christmas Story has been hosting this life size display since 1953.

  • How it all started

    In 1953, Joan Wilcoxon, an actress and the wife of Henry Wilcoxon, an associate producer for Paramount Studios, approached Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce manager Mayor Herb Spurgin with the idea of a city Nativity scene. Herb, a tireless community supporter and former mayor, immediately embraced the idea.

    Herb set out to gain community support for the event with the help of Ysidro Reyes, another businessman and active Chamber member, who was excited at the prospect. Ysidro’s great-aunt, Mrs. Arcadia Bandini Baker, had donated the Palisades Park property to the city in the 1890s. (Ysidro’s great-great-grandfather, also named Ysidro Reyes, had built the first house in Santa Monica at Second and Adelaide in 1838.) When the possibility arose in 1953, Ysidro could not think of a better expression of love for the community than presenting the birth of Christ in what was and is one of the most beautiful settings in the world.
    Herb conferred with the churches while Ysidro approached the businesses. In a groundbreaking cooperative effort, eight churches and the Chamber each adopted a scene and saw to the construction of tableaux within the booths at Palisades Park. Even Beth Shalom Temple wanted to sponsor a booth, but it was difficult to decide on a fitting scene.

    While Herb Spurgin was approaching the churches, Ysidro Reyes and another businessman, Virgil Kingsley, set out to interest business people. “At first I couldn't get to first base,” Ysidro recalls. “There was a hesitation by Chamber members to support the idea because of the different faiths. In those days going to a different church to attend a friend’s funeral was frowned upon, let alone having churches work together.”
    As Ysidro drove west on Santa Monica Boulevard to a second Chamber meeting on the subject, he realized that the Nativity Scenes would serve the common interest of businesses. The Nativity would bring visitors who were potential shoppers into the community. When he made this appeal, Chamber members agreed to support the project. At this time, Ernie Gulsrud, a past Chamber president, became one of the Nativity’s most ardent supporters.

  • The opening ceremony

    The initial pageant in 1953 opened in the evening, when lights flashed on to illuminate the tableaux. Next, a procession of choristers led a float with 60 actors from the park up Wilshire Boulevard to Miles Playhouse, where the Wilcoxon Group Players performed the 13th-century York Nativity Play under directors Joan and Henry Wilcoxon.
    By 1958, the scenes had increased to 14 (the number today). Having a variety of scenes distinguishes the Santa Monica Nativity tableaux. Viewers of all ages – parents and children, young and old – can walk (or drive) south along Ocean Avenue and watch as the “Greatest Story Ever Told” unfolds before their eyes.

    In the late 1950s and the 1960s, the Nativity Scenes developed into a major Santa Monica attraction. Droves of people visited the city to experience the true meaning of Christmas. Reserve police officers directed traffic. The scenes received considerable television coverage.
    During this time, city government, businesses, and churches partnered to support the scenes. The Women’s Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and the city of Santa Monica jointly sponsored financing and construction. By 1960, the City Council voted to call Santa Monica the “City of the Christmas Story” during certain dates in December.
    Students from Santa Monica City College built a 20- foot stained-glass window proclaiming Santa Monica the “City of the Christmas Story.” In 2004, the Nativity Scenes Committee commissioned a new gateway arch sign modeled after the famous Santa Monica Pier arch. The new arch continues to proclaim Santa Monica the “City of the Christmas Story.”

    The financial crisis struck in 1979 just before the opening ceremony. The city announced at the eleventh hour it would not underwrite the loss of revenue for bagging the parking meters and would require reimbursement in advance. Bob Gabriel, a Chamber member and Nativity supporter since 1955, remembers thinking of the importance of the pageant for Santa Monica families. “When my wife, Louise, heard that they could not open, she said, ‘Shall we advance the funds?’” Bob donated the necessary money for the pageant to open, and others like Lawrence Welk gladly partnered when they were made aware of the need. Then in 1982, due to excessive burdens on the Chamber, manager Jerry Jackson disavowed all direct involvement by the Chamber as an organization after nearly 30 years. This was the darkest hour for the Nativity Scenes. It looked as if the City of the Christmas Story would lose its scenes and its title.

    What happened next was an astonishing outpouring of love for this Christmas tradition. Businesses and individuals responded generously (and today still donate the bulk of the funds needed). A meeting of the churches was called in 1982 to determine how finances could be raised to continue the pageant. It was subsequently decided to start the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee to raise funds and oversee the pageant. Monsignor Cyril J. Wood of St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church and the Rev. William Doty of First Baptist Church were elected co-chairmen. After Monsignor Wood’s death, Pastor Doty continued as chairman through 1991. Pastor Clarence Crites of the Santa Monica Church of the Nazarene became chairman in 1992. Because of the close cooperation among the sponsoring churches through the committee, members agreed that the financial crisis that brought the organization about had been a “blessing in disguise.”

  • a grinch arrives on the scene

    Another threat to the Nativity Scenes arose in 2001, when the city of Santa Monica passed a new Special Events Ordinance that the city attorney said would prohibit displays, including the Nativity Scenes, in city parks. The city allowed the 2001 display, however, under a grace period. After protests from the committee and other scenes supporters, including some City Council members, the city again allowed the display in 2002, pending a revision of the ordinance. In 2003, the Nativity Scenes Committee, led by Pastor Crites, supported the city attorney’s efforts to draft a new ordinance.. After discussion and fine-tuning, the City Council passed the ordinance without a dissenting vote in September 2003.

    We wanted you as a member of our community to know the rich heritage we have as a result of the sacrifice of many. But we face a challenge to do our part in blessing future generations and reminding them that Christmas is much more than a commercial holiday. Raising funds to present the Nativity Scenes is a new effort each year, but God provides exactly what is needed through donations from friends and patrons of the scenes.  We do find it odd that the land we wish to use for the displays, was donated by the man who began the displays.  Just doesn't seem right that land was given to the city by the Reyes family and then the city later tells the next generation that we cannot use the land that was donated.  We want you to be blessed and spread the blessing that will come from your taking part in sustaining and refurbishing the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes display.