Christmas in Palm Springs - Vintage, Retro and Modern!
A Retro Roadmap Report from Palm Springs Retro Roadpal Greg Tormo
It’s December. It’s cold. It’s gray. It’s wet. It’s slippery. Put away that snow shovel, and jump on down to Palm Springs!
The Victorian imagery of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, with its working class ethic and Christian piety is not what springs to mind when I think of Christmas in Palm Springs. There are no quaint bucolic sleds carrying young children down gently sloping snow-covered hills.
“White Christmas” in Palm Springs is more like orange, turquoise and hot pink Christmas!
Palm Springs is the antithesis of the Burl Ives Christmas imagery.
The City of Palm Springs sprang up from the desert, originally home to the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla Indians and primarily a western-style guest ranch destination for wintering well-to-do snowbirds. It was a place to convalesce with its dry desert air.
But something happened here beginning in the 1930s - Hollywood!
Hollywood actors were bound by studio contracts to be within 2 hours of the studio at all times in case they were needed on set. Palm Springs was at the very limit of that distance, about 100 miles away. (Although nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to make the journey by car in under 2.5 hours in heavy traffic from LA!)
The modernist architects began building here in the 1930s (Albert Frey’s first home here was built in 1939) and Frank Sinatra helped to popularize the style when he hired E. Stewart Williams in 1947 to build his first home in what was then a sparsely populated desert town.
After WWII, Palm Springs’s population boomed and builders such as the Alexander Construction Co and Jack Meiselman hired architects like William Krisel and Charles DuBois to build tract homes in the new, glamourous desert modern style.
This midcentury modern look and vibe is what attracts people to Palm Springs. And for the most part people try to decorate for the holidays with this in mind. There are probably more aluminum Christmas trees here per capita than anywhere I’ve seen since I was a child in the 60s and early 70s.
We love to festoon our butterfly roofs with strings of colored candelabra bulbs. and we love to fill our mid mod homes with aluminum trees on rotating stands illuminated by color wheels. After all, Travis Smith, the author of “Kitschmasland”, that homage to mid century Christmas collectibles, lives in Palm Springs! And he does design work for H3K.
Although not strictly vintage, H3K’s retail showroom is a great source for retro and vintage-inspired holiday decor.
Emerson & Farrar This gem, our own little “Tiffany’s”, is housed in the historic, Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright)-designed Oasis Hotel building on Palm Canyon Drive, which was built in 1923. Sadly, not a lot remains of the original building, but the Emerson & Farrar jewelry store occupies the front corner and it’s an exquisite jewel in itself.
Inside are original friezes and the elegant architectural lines are readily apparent. Manager Chris Hannon acts as historian and civic booster for the structure. In November, they begin filling their windows with holiday-themed decorations.
This year’s theme harkens back to a time when all mail was snail mail and Christmas cards were the primary form of communication with distant friends and relatives during the holidays.
This unique art installation by local artist Kenny Irwin at his home in the historic Movie Colony neighborhood is is truly one of a kind.
It’s quite a spectacle to behold- made of found objects welded together and painted in bright colors and a very popular local attraction, open to the public from late November to early January.
Hundreds of families come from nearby towns with their children to walk through the 2-acre Technicolor dreamscape filled with Santas and reindeer and giant toys and many other secular Christmas images. Interspersed with these oversized icons, however, are many smaller items seemingly unrelated to the Christmas theme, including staked microwave ovens, skulls, robots and plywood facades cut out in shapes reminiscent of Moorish architecture with ogee arches.
In my view, the installation is more of a critique on the commercialization of the once-sacred than any kind of celebration of the holiday, but its cacophony of sights and sounds is an annual tradition for many.
It’s certainly not Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, but then what is or would want to be?! However it is about festive holiday lights festooning about 50 homes on a single street for a walk through or drive by experience in the Cathedral City, which abuts Palm Springs. Park your car and stroll down one side and back the other before heading to Paul Bar on Vista Chino for a holiday quaff.
Festival of Lights Parade
First Saturday of December 5:45 PM Palm Canyon Drive between Ramon and Tamarisk
We love our parades here in Palm Springs. Dating at least to the 1930s, when the Desert Circus Parade was a star-studded affair, it’s a local joy to close down Palm Canyon Drive to vehicular traffic and stand on the sidewalk while columns of colorful floats and their equally colorful adorning characters march down our main drag. Every year the Gay Pride Parade in early November gets bigger and bigger. (There may have even been more people marching in the 2-hour parade this year than were cheering them on from the sidelines!).
But the Christmas parade in early December is truly unique. It happens after dark and all the floats and participants are bedecked in beautifully illuminated baubles for a glow in the dark experience. Some of the local businesses that line the route use the opportunity to host charity events from their viewing balconies, raising money and accepting donations of toys for needy families. The atmosphere is festive and the parade is a sight to see!
Are you looking to build or enhance your collection of vintage Christmas ornaments and holiday decor? Look no further than this wonderfully curated shop with dozens of vendors selling high quality mid century antiques and ephemera. They create a vintage Winter Wonderland display for those who love collecting from the past for their midcentury modern home.
Maybe retro isn’t your thing but high design floats your boat. This shop, about to celebrate their one year anniversary, deals in high-end bathroom and kitchen fixtures, and also has a selection of unique patio furniture. In this area, owners David and Larry have intriguing molded plastic holiday trees with built in lighting sure to appeal to the design conscious holiday decorator.
While not vintage or even retro, Trina Turk’s clothing is certainly vintage-inspired. And is about as “Palm Springs” as you can get! This is a modern version of resort wear and embodies the color and joie de vivre that permeates Palm Springs.
A proudly contemporary restaurant that not only serves good food and drinks, they also serve the community by donating time and services to many local charities.
They host a Christmas wreath auction funding our LGBT Center and Animal Shelter, and a pet friendly Winter Social to stock the pet food pantry of the community food bank in their glam and festive environs.
Besides all these wonderful stores and their Christmas displays, there is so much more to see and do here in Palm Springs. The mid-century modern eye-candy is a year-round treat!
When you visit, please contact me. I’ll be happy share information with you about the different neighborhoods you should explore so you can experience the Palm Springs lifestyle and see for yourself why this is such a unique and special place.
Greg Tormo is Jersey Boy who followed in Frank Sinatra’s footsteps from Hoboken, New Jersey to Palm Springs California. Greg is a Realtor with the Paul Kaplan Group, finding people their dream mod pads and desert getaways. He’s passionate about mid-century modern architecture and he can be found at moddeserthomes.com and on Instagram @moddeserthomes & @psmailbox