California

I grew up on this coast without ever experiencing a snowy winter, and I did not miss it a bit. It puzzled me that people who had moved here from elsewhere would go to such lengths to recapture the atmosphere of Christmas in demonstrably worse climates.

California lacked the cozy fires and frosted windows often attached to the true holiday spirit, but why go to such lengths to compensate for what seemed to me a minor loss?

The most spectacular Christmas decorations I ever saw in this country were in the suburban hills of San Francisco and two blocks of a little Los Angeles suburb called Altadena. Christmas trees in California became famous for excessive glitter.

My mother pushed the holiday spirit to its illogical extremes by ignoring my complaints and leaving our little furnace off even on those winter mornings when the California sun had not yet had time to erase the chill. I figured she had grown up in places like Boston and Norfolk and missed the colder climate.

It was not a passion I could share, and that, I think, was the point. California then was still a place where people like myself, natives of the Golden West, were a distinct and often young minority. In 1950 only 3.9 million Californians, 41 percent of the total, had been born here. Now, as the state has continued to settle since the enormous influx of outsiders in World War II, our percentage of the population has slowly climbed to 45.3, and our number to 10.7 million.

We may now perhaps begin to lose some of the garish, emotional edge to our Christmas decorations and celebrations, satisfying ourselves with the fainter echoes of the traditions brought here by first-generation immigrants from the rest of the country. This may not be so bad, for, as I learned later in life, the trappings are not all that important.

When at age 19 I transferred to a college on the East Coast, the first time I had ever crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains, I thought I would finally tap into this visceral feeling for white winter holidays. The first snowfall was thrilling, but then it got very cold, and stayed that way. I spent my first Christmas away from home in New York, studying the skaters in Rockefeller Plaza, walking the streets all night once, a California boy trying to soak it all in.

All that I can recall now is the intense cold and loneliness. I wondered what I was missing.

After college, I was drafted and spent basic training at a similarly uninviting if western locale, Fort Lewis, Wash. The endless, bone-chilling rainstorms appeared to have been requisitioned by drill sergeants determined to intimidate a training platoon composed entirely of thin-blooded Californians. Near Thanksgiving I acquired a two-day Letter From California pass and, against orders, boarded a flight to Los Angeles to see my wife.

The afternoon I arrived the smog was thick and the airport traffic particularly snarled and noisy, but I was particularly aware of only the temperature. The air was as warm and soft as a kiss, the same temperature as my boyhood Christmas holidays. Cold and clammy thoughts of Fort Lewis relaxed their grip on my soul. My wife was waiting, and I was suddenly full of the holiday spirit.

This Thanksgiving I dined in Redlands with her family, many of them former Oklahomans. They evoked their own childhoods by consuming great amounts of cornbread dressing and sweet potatoes with marshmallows. I enthusiastically joined in, for I knew what they were after. On the day I escaped from Fort Lewis, I saw what I was missing, just a sense of where home was, and what being away from it meant.