The oldest Long Beach Christmas traditions—just in case you were wondering—date to the era of the Spanish ranchos. On Christmas Eve, the early settlers would gather around a piñata hanging from the ceiling, not a Christmas tree, and take turns using a long stick to smash the clay jar filled with candy and gifts. Afterward, the community would attend Las Posadas (the Pageant of the Holy Family) at the nearby Mission followed by Midnight Mass.
When Americans from the East Coast started to settle in the ranchos, they brought the Christmas tree traditions that we are familiar with. Though John and Susan Bixby were the first American couple to own Rancho Los Alamitos up on Bixby Hill (at the end of Palo Verde and Anaheim near CSULB), the first real memorable Bixby Christmas traditions belonged to their son Fred, his wife Florence, and their annual Christmas Eve parties from 1906 until the1930s.
Everyone attended the parties. Hundreds of people. Which was literally everyone in East Long Beach at the time.
Before the housing tracts, schools, and streets—the 90808, 90815, and 90803 zip codes—this area was all part of the Bixby ranch. The ranch hands and their families made the trek up Bixby Hill every Christmas Eve from houses scattered around the area. They wouldn’t miss it for anything. It was the party of the year. They came even in the rain. One year, a woman sat quietly in the corner all during the party without talking. The Bixby family would later find out she was hours away from giving birth. But missing the Bixby Christmas Party was out of the question.
The Christmas tree was unique at the Bixby house. It was always cut off on the top. Fred Bixby was a big man and he was “El Patron.” The Boss. Naturally, he wanted the biggest Christmas tree in the area with the biggest branches. For the tree to have the girth Fred wanted, it was always too tall to fit below their ceiling. So they cut it off at the top. No Christmas star topped this tree. It looked like it was growing through the roof.
The living room was blocked off with hanging bed sheets so that no one could see the Christmas tree until after dinner. Under the tree sat hundreds of presents—one for each family and two for each child. And these weren’t just fly-by-night gifts, like the “desperation buys” some of us make at Target on Dec. 23. The Bixby gift-buying process started the day after Thanksgiving.
The Bixby children would ride out to every single ranch house and survey their families. Lists would be compiled. Each year, the families would get something they needed—either for their homes or tailored perfectly to the ages and sexes of their children. Florence Bixby spent long days in Los Angeles shopping for meaningful gifts. It was important that the gifts weren’t generic.
When the bed sheets were finally taken down and the massive, a fully-decorated Christmas tree was revealed and the crowd was enthralled. No one could quite believed the sight of this sparkling, ornate wonder. Lit candles were clipped to the ends of all the branches and illuminated the mounds of presents underneath. It seemed too good to be true to the ranch hands who saw it every year and even to the Bixby family who had decorated it the night before.
So it seems, there was nothing quite like those Christmas Eves at the Bixby Ranch in the early 1900s. East Long Beach may have been more rural than it is now. But even before cars, streets, and cell phones tying us together 24/7, the Bixby holiday tradition made the five miles surrounding Rancho Los Alamitos seem a lot smaller and more closely knit than the reality. No one was thinking about distance. The rancho community was thinking about friends, families, and co-workers—those familiar faces and traditions that still give our 908’ community its small-town feel today.