Friday, December 6, 2002
4 times the cheer
Mission Viejo celebrates the return of religion to a community holiday display
The Orange County Register
MISSION VIEJO The baby Jesus and the dreidels have been reunited with Santa, so the Bennetts will again drive those extra blocks on the way home to see them.
Genna Hewett-Abbott, 4, can peer out of the car window on the way to preschool and say, "Good morning, Baby Jesus.''
The Muellers returned to spend an evening at La Paz Road and Chrisanta Drive.
"I just like to show my kids the meaning of Christmas. That's why I'm glad they put the Nativity back,'' said Janet Mueller, with family in tow Wednesday night.
The Four Corners are back.
In this city of 100,000 that was carved out of chaparral 35 years ago, this quartet of holiday displays means more than an explosion of lights and a manger. It was - and is again - a dearly held tradition of a secular Santa joined by religious displays.
Santa first plopped onto the corner 32 years ago, followed by a Nativity scene 14 years ago, a Hanukkah display about nine years ago, a Muslim display two years ago and a Baha'i display for the first time this year.
Afraid too many groups would demand to crowd onto this high-profile intersection just east of the San Diego (I-5) Freeway, city officials last year banned religious displays at the Four Corners, relegating them to a remote park. Only Santa and lighted trees, legally deemed secular, could grace the Four Corners.
The community balked. Jesus, Mary and Joseph set up shop in the front yard of a pastor's house nearby, declining to use the city's designated spot at Florence Joyner Olympiad Park.
"I just felt that people were being too politically correct,'' Janet Mueller said as she spun a white, wooden 2-foot dreidel that is part of the Chabad Jewish Center display.
E-mails and telephone calls - in a word, frustration - rained onto City Hall last year. After numerous meetings, city officials came up with a way to let religion back in: a lottery that they believe treats all groups fairly and is lawsuit- proof. A Muslim group that was part of the display in 2000 was left out this year only because it missed the deadline to apply.
"I don't understand what all of the controversy is about; it was perfect,'' said Jan Bennett. Bennett said her Mission Viejo block was "fired up more than anything'' about the religious icons' hiatus last year. "Did they put Jesus back? That's great. It just seems like something was lost last year. It just didn't seem the same here in Mission Viejo.''
Santa first arrived here in 1970, a project of the Mission Viejo Activities Committee, volunteers who worked with the development company. It was to create a bond between the developer and the homeowners with some community spirit at the massive housing tract's entrance.
It grew on the town and eventually became four small, grassy corners graced by Santa's workshop; the Nativity; a dreidel house, dreidels, and a menorah; and a 60-foot-tall pine tree decked out in lights and topped by a lighted white star.
Two years ago, Muslims joined the celebration, adding a display celebrating Ramadan, sharing the corner with the Christians and Jews.
But the nonprofit activities committee, which has continued to oversee the Four Corners, grew worried that more religious groups would seek space than there were spots available. Last year, it banned religious symbols.
That November, the city set up the Florence Joyner park as a place where any group could set up displays. Five did so, but the park is in a less- traveled area of Mission Viejo, and it was difficult for motorists to view the displays.
Frustration and confusion swelled among residents, with some wrongly believing that a religious group or two had complained about Four Corners - forcing the city's hand.
A committee was established to make a recommendation to the City Council. It met eight times. Finally, the council came up with a solution the city attorney said is solid legally, a policy intended to keep Four Corners alive.
Eight spots are now up for grabs at the Four Corners. If more than that had applied, the city manager would have pick winners out of a bowl, and the others could have set up at the park.
"As long as everyone's being treated equally, we're OK,'' City Manager Dan Joseph said.
The Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'i was in the park last year and is making its first Four Corners appearance: a 9-foot-tall display, topped by a picture of the world circled with the words: "The earth is but one country and mankind is its citizens."
"When our kids looked at the corners, they asked, 'Why aren't we part of it?''' said Whitney White, an assembly member and anthropologist. "My 7-year-old loves it (and says), 'It's exciting. There we are on the corner.'''
The biggest lure by far is always Santa, who is available for visits on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday nights, handing out 1,700 candy canes during the season to children and some adults. Activities committee volunteer Patti Kellems recalled a night nine years ago when four Alzheimer's patients dropped by.
"This one woman, after Mrs. Claus gave her a cane, she just stood at the door with a face of joy and elation and said, 'It's the real Santa.'
"All these people in line were crying. It was beautiful.''
On Wednesday night, at one point, 75 parents and children were in line to visit Santa and Mrs. Claus in their workshop.
Davine Hewett-Abbott, 38, visited the corners 25 years ago as a girl and this year brought her daughter Genna.
"We're actually really glad to have it back,'' said Hewett- Abbott, a county budget analyst. "It's really the center of town. I like the diversity. That's what's expressed here. ... "We just live in a community that is very transient. We commute everywhere. For me, this brings us back as a community. I love it. To see my neighbors - it makes it more of a town than a city."
©Copyright 2002, The Orange County Register (CA, USA)