Patt Morrison: What gives L.A. that Thanksgiving feeling? It certainly isn’t the weather

Cognitive dissonance, SoCal style: The calendar says it’s November, but the sky swears it’s April, maybe even July.

It’s Thanksgiving. And for a hundred years and more, pilgrims from the East and Midwest to this Pacific coast have sometimes found themselves a bit flummoxed over how to carry off a holiday built 400 years ago around the original Pilgrims on the Atlantic coast.

“Nobody gets much thrill out of Thanksgiving Day here in the West,” is how Times columnist Harry Carr moped over the holiday doldrums in 1923. “You have to be somewhere near the tracks of the Pilgrim Fathers to get much meaning out of Thanksgiving.”

But we manage, somehow. We suffer through a snowless, Puritan-free holiday by surfing, rock-climbing, skiing — when the smell of smoke isn’t necessarily burned turkey, but might be brush fires.

In 1957, Thanksgiving Day marked the hunting season for the West Hills Hunt Club — the horseback, top hat and riding-coat kind of hunting — with the “Blessing of the Hounds.”

The singularly American version of Thanksgiving plays by rules more rigid than Christmas. Christmas observances are global and elastic; Thanksgiving is one day of fixed, ritualized practices no matter where in these United States you celebrate it.

There’s a charming movie from 2000 called “What’s Cooking?” It’s set in Los Angeles, with a damn fine cast playing four families — Black, Vietnamese, Jewish and Latino — bringing their own varied flavors of life and food to the Thanksgiving table, trying in the midst of family freak-outs and cooking catastrophes to pull off the impossible: a perfect Thanksgiving. (The mash-up of scenes of four families’ potato-mashing techniques is classic.)

For the longest time, in Los Angeles as elsewhere, Thanksgiving was principally a religious holiday, a tip of the capotain Puritan hat to the dogged Calvinism of the Mayflower crowd. The Times routinely printed, at astonishing length, Thanksgiving Day sermons from well-known local pastors.

That, at least, felt like home for the hundreds of thousands of Protestant middle Americans who migrated to L.A. and, in the land of Spanish missions, built themselves white clapboard New England-style steepled churches.

In 1896, The Times patted its city on the back: “It was a wise foresight that first ordained that church service should precede Turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Grace before meat is peculiarly fitting on this particular holiday … before dinner, [the ordinary American] may be devout — after dinner, he is comatose.”

In 1899, on the cusp of the 1900s, The Times did a good deal of throat-clearing to announce a new secular civic celebration. “Thanksgiving day will be celebrated in Los Angeles this year as it never was before. … Heretofore Thanksgiving day has been one of the quiet holidays of the year, devoted to the services in the churches and, of course, to football.” But now, “there will be a military and civic parade, patriotic exercises at the cycle track, a football game, golf, a banquet, a sacred concert, and a number of other sources of amusement and pleasure.”

California’s Thanksgiving observances and re-creations celebrated the Massachusetts Native Americans but breezed right on past the local Native Americans who had been all but erased from the city’s demographics. In the 1899 Thanksgiving parade, a group of white pioneers marched; it was named, without irony, “Native Sons of the Golden West.”

A turkey asks a fair question — “What should I be thankful for?” — on this vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.

vintage postcard from Patt Morrison's collection

On a 1923-postmarked card from Morrison’s collection, a correspondent asks her brother — who was possibly away at school, given the St. Olaf College mailing address — “Will you have turkey?”

Thirty years on, L.A. Thanksgivings were frankly secular and uniquely ours: sports, games, picnics at the beach, a “fairyland” parade downtown, warm-weather pleasure drives through the hills.

The studios gave everyone the day off. In 1940, The Times assiduously documented the movie stars’ holiday doings: Broderick Crawford heading off on a Honolulu honeymoon; housemates Franchot Tone and Burgess Meredith throwing a dinner for friends; Errol Flynn motoring to Palm Springs for the tennis; Donald Crisp and George Brent out on the water on their respective yachts; Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor golfing with Jack Benny and his wife, Mary Livingstone; and “the Bela Lugosis are going to his mother’s for dinner.” (That’s your straight line, amateur comics — go for it.)

Thanksgiving 1929, a month after Wall Street — as Variety headlined it — laid an egg, The Times noted in many column inches of type that free food was served for the “unfortunates” at the Salvation Army, the Midnight Mission and sundry churches. In years before, food giveaways were staged in poor neighborhoods, and veterans in the Old Soldiers’ Home in Sawtelle — now the VA grounds in Westwood — were fed lavishly.

The county jail’s Thanksgiving menu made the news, probably because of who would be eating it.

Sweet potatoes, fruit Jello, and roast pork — not turkey — would be served to all the inmates, from the lowliest cutpurse to what amounted to the celebrity wing, and its residents:

  • Alexander Pantages, the millionaire theater magnate convicted of raping a 17-year-old dancer.
  • Asa Keyes, once the L.A. County district attorney, who sent men to the cell he now occupied; he was convicted of taking a bribe.
  • Leo (Pat) Kelley, back in town from San Quentin’s death row, for resentencing for the lesser charge of manslaughter, for murdering his older, married “cougar” girlfriend. Kelley said he’d put on 25 pounds in San Quentin — and he probably packed on a few more at Thanksgiving.
A chef with a massive knife stands atop a scowling turkey on this vintage postcard

A vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection is addressed to “Dear Little Raymond,” and bears a 1912 postmark. It was sent from Florida to Brattleboro, Vt.

That episode is a clear contender for winning the most-SoCal-Thanksgiving-incident-ever sweepstakes. But if mine were the sole vote, the palm has to go to this, from Thanksgiving 2000.

Wendy P. McCaw, a woman we described as the “billionaire environmentalist-libertarian,” bought the venerable Santa Barbara News-Press in 2000, and just this past July, declared the paper was bankrupt and closed it down.

For Thanksgiving of that first year, an editorial urged locals to donate generously to a local food bank, but with an asterisk: no turkey, please. “We cannot — in good conscience — recommend continuation of a tradition that involves the death of an unwilling participant … donate a turkey if you wish, but you can also donate all the other goodies associated with a holiday meal. Beans and rice are a good protein substitute for turkey.”

Santa Barbarans did not all take kindly to the suggestion, and to show their displeasure, donated 700 more dead turkeys than the food bank had asked for.

"Thanksgiving Greetings: 'Lest We Forget'"

Regale your holiday guests with this Thanksgiving verse, found on a 1915-postmarked postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.

Patt Morrisonat USC, in Los Angeles, CA, Sunday, April 24, 2022.

Explaining L.A. With Patt Morrison

Los Angeles is a complex place. In this weekly feature, Patt Morrison is explaining how it works, its history and its culture.

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