Planning a jubilant ceremony of music, song and speakers, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee will celebrate the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes second half-century Sunday, December 12th, with an opening ceremony and lighting of the Nativity scenes, according to Hunter Jameson, Nativity Scenes Committee chairman.

The community event will begin at 4 p.m. at Third Street and Broadway in Santa Monica as approximately 70 young choristers form a “singing cross” and proceed up the Promenade to Wilshire Boulevard, west to Ocean Avenue and then across the street to Palisades Park.

Beginning at 5 p.m., the opening ceremony will take place on Ocean Avenue between Arizona Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard and will include a musical presentation — weather permitting — with the Santa Monica High School Chamber Orchestra and a recitation of the Christmas story from the Bible.

Bob Gabriel, longtime supporter of the Nativity scenes, will be master of ceremonies.

The committee hopes to recognize Ysidro Reyes, the first master of ceremonies, who was very active in the Santa Monica Chamber and in getting initial support for the scenes.

New this year will be a gateway arch near Arizona Avenue, modeled after the Santa Monica Pier sign, saying, “Santa Monica, City of the Christmas Story.”

Actress Joan Wilcoxon first approached Herb Spurgin, Santa Monica Chamber manager, in 1953 with the idea of having a city Nativity scene.

Spurgin embraced the idea and enlisted the help of Ysidro Reyes, whose great-aunt, Arcadia Bandini, had donated the Palisades Park property to the city in the 1890s.

According to Reyes, it wasn’t easy getting support from businesses in the community because of the various faiths of members.

When he pointed out that Nativity scenes would bring visitors to Santa Monica who were potential shoppers, the chamber members agreed to support the project.

The idea of a single scene grew into nine Nativity scenes depicting the Christmas Story and was sponsored by local churches, the city and the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce.

The Nativity scenes begin at Arizona Avenue and continue south, showing the Christmas Story in sequence, beginning with The Annunciation, then Joseph’s Dream and through to the final tableau, Return to Nazareth. Biblical inscriptions accompany each of the displays.

The first ceremony, in 1953, began with a procession of choristers who led a float with 60 actors from Palisades Park down Wilshire Boulevard to Miles Playhouse.

There, the Wilcoxon Group Players performed the 13th century York Nativity Play under the direction of Joan and Henry Wilcoxon.

The lighting of the tableaux became a tradition saluting the opening of the Christmas season, according to Jameson.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, the scenes became a major attraction, requiring the use of reserve police officers to direct traffic.

By 1960, the Santa Monica City Council voted to call Santa Monica the “City of the Christmas Story” during certain dates in December.

Through the years the number of scenes grew to 14 and professional lighting and dramatic scenery were added.

More recently, wire has been placed in front of the booths to deter vandals.

The participating churches formed the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee in 1982 when financial support from the city and chamber waned.

Financial problems incurred by the city, as well as threats of legal action by those who opposed the Nativity scenes, caused the city to step back from its financial involvement. Santa Monica had been paying for electricity and had underwritten lost revenue from the meters that were bagged so drivers could slow down and view the scenes from their cars, according to Jameson.

Now the organization pays the yearly cost of approximately $15,000, defrayed by tax-deductible gifts from individuals, groups, churches and members of the chamber.

Today, 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association sponsor the Nativity scenes. Mannequins are used for the displays and each church or sponsor is responsible for the interior upkeep of its tableau.

The committee helps with the installation and storing of the booths, but interior maintenance remains the responsibility of the sponsor.

Jameson says elements can be hard on the booths, which are made mostly of wood, with metal framing. He adds that wind has been a problem in past years and now the booths are grouped closer together, making them a little more sheltered, cutting down on the wind damage.

Of his involvement, Jameson says:

“This is a worthy activity to proclaim what the true meaning of Christmas is, the birth of Jesus, and it’s a good thing to continue this community tradition, especially as it enters its second half century.”

Lit throughout the night, the tableaux will remain on view through the end of December.

Julie Kirst can be reached at