Laguna on Acid

The Great Hippie Christmas Invasion of 1970

Soon after the area was clear of people, bulldozers and other heavy equipment moved into Sycamore Flats. It was supposed to be a cleanup, but it was almost as if the city fathers wanted to obliterate all traces of the Christmas Happening. The stage was burned. Trenches were dug, and into them the bulldozers swept the accumulated garbage along with tents, sleeping bags, clothing, anything left behind in the hasty departure of the Flower Children-even the borrowed pots and pans that Leeds and her cooking crew had used to feed the multitudes. Some people got back in to pick up their gear, but not many.

The recriminations began at once. Council members emerged from their "command bunker" in the Surf and Sand to face criticism that the festival should not have been allowed to take place; council members cited vague "police intelligence reports" that "hardcore revolutionaries" had been in town and argued that if attempts had been made to prevent the festival, a violent confrontation would have ensued. Besides, the mayor told the press, all the decisions had been made by the city manager, anyway; conveniently, the city manager was unavailable for comment.

The tenor of things in once-gentle Laguna Beach had changed. On Jan. 6, 1971, Jim Van Rensselaer, a Laguna News-Post staff writer who had been the city "public-relations consultant" during the Christmas Happening, wrote an article bemoaning "the hideous hippie happening that spoiled our Christmas."

"There was nothing good about this unlawful gathering," which was the "brainchild of a small group of cynical and self-seeking promoters. . . . Whatever religious or spiritual overtones that could by the remotest stretch of the imagination be attached to it were phony," Rensselaer wrote.

As the new year continued, the City Council discussed ordinances that could make it easier to prevent any future "illegal assembly." City Councilman Ed Lohr, who a year before had been trying to ban dogs from Laguna's beaches, repeated charges that "hardcore revolutionaries" had been on-hand waiting to exploit any confrontation and could be counted on to take over any future festival. The business community raised its collective voice as well. They had lost all those Christmas-dinner reservations; they demanded the city take action against the "drug-taking, diseased, hippie bums." Others wanted to know if there was some way to prosecute the Krishnas for all that chanting they were doing. There were complaints about all the costs incurred for police overtime and cleanup.

A few voices were raised to praise the generally peaceful way in which the festival had been conducted and to criticize the way it was handled by city officials. "There was less drug taking at the festival than any other event of this kind that I know of," Atherton told the press. He went on to blast police for cutting off food and medical supplies to the festival. "We cannot have such a disregard of human life," he said.

But those words were few and far between. When some festival organizers talked about trying to turn Sycamore Flats into a "people's park," the city said it would quickly quash any attempt of that sort. There was something in the air, some barely perceived sense, some feeling like your body coming down with a cold, a feeling that things were changing and passing away. It wasn't just in Laguna Beach; it was also all across the country, but in Laguna, because of the Christmas festival, there was a convenient way of marking the before and after.

Atherton saw part of it. The Christmas Happening came at a kind of cusp, as we were beginning the slide into more cynical, complicated times. The Flower Children were growing up, getting older, realizing the lures and responsibilities of families and careers. The Movement was just running out of energy. Long hair would become fashionable. Flower Power would become a marketing strategy. "The times were changing," Atherton says ironically. "Look at the festival. Here was this big gathering of people, and it was peaceful and happy and showed the way things could work. But we couldn't let things like that work; it was too frightening. There was a backlash. That's the way it was going all across the country. Some parts of it got bought out by the system, and some parts of it got put down by the system. The country goes through cycles. Maybe that was just the end of one cycle and the beginning of another one."

Danelle Adams saw part of it, too. The 18-year-old who had talked her boyfriend into taking her to the Christmas Happening stayed in Laguna Beach and joined the police force; she is now a lieutenant in charge of investigations.

"Things did seem to get a harder edge after that," she tells me as we stand in a hallway of the police station, looking at a photo of the Christmas Happening. "Not just in Laguna, but also everywhere. In the '60s, it was marijuana. But then the drugs started getting harder. The people, too. Guns and cocaine and the whole thing.

"Times change. I'm glad I grew up in the '60s. As a kid, there was just no stress. But then it just became competition for everything. The Christmas Happening could never happen today." She pauses and gives a little laugh. "Hell, you'd have to get permits out the kazoo."

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