The trick to making Christmas here seem like Christmas is a trick one often finds useful in life: if you want to enjoy it, you'd best not try to make it into something it's not.

Do not, for example, come to Los Angeles and expect to find Christmas on the famous shopping mecca of Rodeo Drive. At this time of year Rodeo is a fairyland of delicate white lights at night. But with sunrise there's no mistaking the absence of Christmas' most essential ingredient.

It isn't snow that's missing. It's not snowing in Bethlehem, either. As John Gregory Dunne has observed, the temperature in Bethlehem on Christmas Day is the same as the temperature in Los Angeles. And if Christmas in Bethlehem doesn't seem like Christmas, Christmas is in more trouble than it knows.

What's missing on Rodeo Drive is children. You won't find any there unless they have their own television series.

It is widely believed on Rodeo Drive that Santa Claus makes his rounds with the assistance of eight tiny reindeer pulling a chocolate brown Mercedes. But Los Angeles is not merely Rodeo Drive.

This is just a sleepy southwestern pueblo, all grown up. All grown out, some who object to the endless suburban sprawl might say. But when you live on a Spanish land grant there's no need to crowd. Just as there's no need to feel it's not Christmas because you're not in New England.

Christmas begins here nine nights before the 25th, the first night of Las Posadas. Translated literally, Las Posadas means "the inns." It is a Spanish and Latin American ceremony depicting the journey of Mary and Joseph through Bethlehem.

Las Posadas is held on Olvera Street, a one-block stretch of uneven Spanish tile and brick in the shadow of downtown's skycrapers. This city's oldest existing structure, an adobe house built in 1818, stands on Olvera Street, and the entire street is a historic monument called El Pueblo de Los Angeles in honor of the city's original name. Cars aren't allowed on Olvera Street, and wouldn't fit anyway.

On either side of the street, and running down its middle, are restaurants, food stalls and small shops. There are two old-fashioned candlemakers, a glass blower, pottery and leather shops. If some of the shops deal in tacky, touristy souvenirs, well, . . . caveat emptor, gringo.

On each of the nine nights before Christmas, Las Posadas is reenacted here. Four small girls lead a candlight procession up one side of the Letter From the Coast gaily decorated street and down the other, stopping at each establishment. At each, Mary and Joseph ask to be taken in but are rebuffed.

The procession trudges on, and the Las Posadas chorus fades in favor of Christmas carols, some with English lyrics and others with Spanish. Most of the strollers are Olvera Street merchants and their families, dressed in religious or traditional Mexican costumes. But the public is welcome to join in, so at the end of the procession there are stragglers dressed in civilian clothes, and if they're a little weak on the chorus they belt a great "Silent Night."

At the last stop Mary and Joseph find their shelter, and a pinada is broken in celebration, spilling candy and pennies at the feet of the weary travelers. Just in case there's not enough to go around men in ponchos throw more sweets and money to the crowd. Before the pinada is broken the crowd is admonished to "Please be careful of the children."

On Rodeo Drive children are rarely the first consideration, and nothing is ever given away. But then, the families who come to Olvera Street know that Santa rides in a sleigh.

It is Christmas in El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Feliz Navidad.