December 25, 2023

Photo Essay: The Magical Holiday Parade, Upon the Centennial of Toluca Lake

Christmas Eve has always been more important to me than Christmas. I guess I've always just liked the anticipation better than the reality of things. 

So, in years that I'm not able to go back East for the holidays, the challenge is finding something to do when 'tis the night before Christmas and so many places are closed (or, sadly, extra-expensive). 

Historically, that's meant going over to a friend's house, attending church services, or even just hitting the neighborhood bars a little harder than usual.

But this year, I made a plan two months in advance: to volunteer as a caroler for the Toluca Lake Magical Holiday Parade in the village of Toluca Lake, California (technically part of the City of Los Angeles). 

The neighborhood tradition used to be known as the "Christmas Caroling Truck" or the "Christmas Truck Parade," when it began in 1982 with a simple pickup truck and evolved and expanded into an 18-wheeler.

The parade had been on hiatus with the COVID-19 pandemic, eventually becoming too much for the prior organizers to continue operating—and in stepped Craig Strong of Strong Realtor to take over the management and expand it once again into a full-on caravan. 

In addition to costumed characters, like the Grinch and a snowman and gingerbread man...

...there are also bona fide floats, like a Santa's Village (populated by elves)...

...a gingerbread house... O'Farrell Jones & Hyde cable car built by the (now defunct) California Street Cable Railroad Company of San Francisco...
...and of course Santa and Mrs. Claus on their sleigh pulled by some animatronic reindeer. 

The cable car was really cool, a relic from a line that ended service in 1957... diesel-powered, like a bus.

I stood in the back, driver's side stairwell—not really by choice, but because somehow other carolers had claimed all of the seats while I was still standing around waiting for someone to tell me where to go.  
But it gave me a great view of what was going on behind and in front of us (including when we were temporarily stopped while we waited for someone to move their car, wine glass in hand, so we could make a turn onto a narrow street).

Although the point was for us to entertain the neighborhood, it was incredibly festive as a participant. 

I could easily sing and dance and admire the Christmas lights at the same time. 

And Toluca Lake neighbors really came out in droves—either onto their front lawns, often in their PJs with cocoa mug or wine glass in hand, or into the intersections, sometimes following us and chasing us down as they sang and danced along to the music that was absolutely blasting out of our speakers. (No one could actually hear us sing.)

Spectators hoisted children onto their shoulders and pushed dogs in strollers; and one woman even toted around her parakeet in a cage strung up with Christmas lights. Many of them called out, "Merry Christmas!" and "Thank you!

It was a big production—one that ran about an hour over schedule, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. (For performers like me, that was a lot of arm-waving and bopping around.) But it had a really small town, hometown feel—not like something coming out of "Hollywood," though Toluca Lake is sandwiched between Universal City and Burbank.

And many celebrities have called Toluca Lake home—including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Andy Griffith, Bette Davis, and more recently, the likes of Miley Cyrus and Andy Garcia.

This San Fernando Valley neighborhood just celebrated its centennial, having been established as the town of "Toluca Ranch" (or Rancho Toluca) in 1893 but officially became as "Toluca Lake" in 1923. But the 100th anniversary wasn't the reason for the parade. 

In fact, they're planning an even bigger to-do, with an expanded route, next year. 

Maybe in 2024, I'll watch it from the street—but this year, I had probably the most fun and exhausting time I've ever had on Christmas Eve.

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