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A Sound Tradition: The L.A. County Holiday Celebration

The Los Angeles Ballet
The L.A. County Holiday Celebration, which KCET broadcast live for 49 years, is a uniquely SoCal tradition which highlights our region's unrivaled racial, ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.

Although most of Southern California lacks a winter wonderland this time of year, our region is still strong with holiday traditions. Mid-October store displays and carol-eager radio stations notwithstanding, the holiday season in Southern California is bookended by two world-famous parades: The Hollywood Christmas Parade on the Sunday following Thanksgiving, and the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's Day.

In between, there are several other traditional events to celebrate the season, from parades to tree-lighting ceremonies to festivals, ceremonies, and pageants both large and small. But one event has come to highlight our region's unrivaled racial, ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity: the L.A. County Holiday Celebration, which had been broadcasted live on KCET for 49 years.

The late County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn -- the father of former Los Angeles mayor James Hahn and current U.S. Congresswoman Janice Hahn -- represented L.A. County's 2nd district from 1952 to 1992, and championed, among many other things during his unprecedented career, bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles, establishing a medical center in the South L.A. region, and re-establishing rail transit back to Southern California. He also held a deep affinity towards the arts, especially its accessibility to all. In 1959, he organized and personally helped raise funds for a free Christmas Eve concert in his district at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in Exposition Park, which had just opened that summer.

A few years later, when philanthropist Dorothy Buffum Chandler sought Hahn's support for the proposed Music Center complex, the Supervisor agreed to support the project, on the condition that the county-owned performing arts venue would be free and open to the public on one day each year.

After the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened in 1964 -- the same year KCET first went on the air -- the L.A. County Holiday Celebration made is new and current home there.

In 1965, the still-fledgling KCET, having just been formally dedicated earlier that year, brought the mostly day-long performance to Southern California households for the first time. That year, the broadcast lasted seven hours, featuring "Local choral groups singing all types of Christmas music," according to KCET's member magazine and program guide, Camera 28.

In 1966, the event, sponsored by what was then-known as the L.A. County Music Commission, lasted for 12 hours and featured 23 individual groups from across Los Angeles County, ranging in size from four to 375 members each. It also featured a full symphony orchestra under the direction of five different conductors, 30 youth bands, plus the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1967, the event took place on Saturday, December 23rd instead of the 24th, seemingly following the Rose Parade's credo of not having the event on a Sunday. In 1969, KCET presented the L.A. County Holiday Celebration's live broadcast in color for the first time. The last live broadcast on KCET was in 2013, a program that garnered a local Emmy award this year.

Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jose Hernandez closes KCET's live broadcast of the 53rd Annual L.A. County Holiday Celebration at the Music Center in 2012. | Photo: Ed Krieger
Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jose Hernandez closes KCET

The event, sponsored by the L.A. County Arts Commission, has ranged in length from three to twelve hours, often dictated by budget. But during good and bad economic times alike, the show still went on, open to all. Many individuals and families have made it a tradition to stop by the Music Center -- with free parking as well as free admission -- and enjoy at least some of the concert, as a respite from Christmas shopping madness or as a way to get into the holiday spirit. Many line up early in the morning for a prime seat, while others watch KCET's telecast during the day and are inspired to check out the performances later on in the day. Leaving the concert early or midway was of no concern to the organizers; a long queue of people meandered outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion waiting to fill any open seats.

Most importantly, the L.A. County Holiday Celebration has presented something uniquely Southern California -- presenting the breadth of the diverse people enjoying their respective holidays during this time of year. Featuring professional artists and community ensembles alike, from church choirs singing traditional Christmas carols, to Jewish children performing Hanukkah hymns, to dance performances celebrating the start of the winter season, to artists expressing their holiday joy in Spanish, Tagalog, Farsi, Korean, Hindi, Nigerian, Armenian, and every other language in between, it is one of the holiday traditions that L.A. can uniquely call its own, and KCET is proud to have been part of that tradition.

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