By Katy Lain

Twenty years ago, when Santa Claus Lane was in its heyday, it was a hot spot for L.A. kids like Mary Morton, who spent her summers near Carpenteria, a low-key Southern California beach community outside Santa Barbara. As a young girl (she looked a bit like Coppertone-era Jodie Foster back then), Morton would wander from the nearby beach over to Santa's Candy Kitchen for one of their famous date milkshakes, and to hang out. At Santa's Trading Post, fake turquoise rings sold for $1.00. The rings opened to reveal a secret compartment, although Morton never knew what she was supposed to hide there—perhaps a wish list for Santa.

These days, Santa Claus Lane is a shabby shadow of its former self—a few stores and a single restaurant—although the giant Santa still waves to motorists as they drive Highway 101, beckoning them to pull off the highway and visit Santa's Toyland. At Santa's Kitchen, the lone restaurant, it's Christmas all year long, with a mural of Santa on the wall, red booths, miniature Christmas trees, red and white tinsel, gingerbread houses, and black-haired dolls with crazed eyes wearing Santa caps. A young Mexican waitress serves "Mrs. Santa's Favorite" (egg and toast) and "Rudolph's Allowance" (one pancake) for breakfast or burgers for lunch while warm breezes drift in from the Pacific and customers eat outside, watching the cars zoom past along the highway.

"I think Santa Claus Lane is really part of a genre," Morton said. "I've seen it in other places—people making money off of Christmas all year round." Her attitude reflects childhood ideals lost, perhaps—an attitude not uncommon among Southern Californians, who often come to question the kitschy landscape they grew up in.

Santa Claus Lane was the brainchild of an entrepreneur named Patrick McKeon who, back in 1948, thought it would be a pretty nifty idea to designate a strip of Southern California beachfront property as "Santa Claus Lane" because it was situated amidst a lot of towns with names beginning with "Santa"—his own bizarre response to California's Spanish heritage. He and his brother opened up an orange-juice stand and a date shop, and oddly enough, the idea took off. The place became a successful tourist attraction. Part of Santa Claus Lane's appeal was the rural postal substation that used to operate there; tourists got a kick out of mailing postcards stamped with the cachet: "Mailed from Santa Claus, California."

Although now Morton prefers to eat at what she calls a "real" restaurant for Carpenteria locals called the Pacific Grill, Southern California kitsch remains a part of her life. Recently, she discovered the Madonna Inn, a pink and red hotel located up the Pacific Coast near San Luis Obispo. Every room is decorated with a different theme. "It's unreal, like a '50s person's freakish fantasy," she says. "But you wouldn't believe how clean and well run it is. It's really, really popular."   </end>

KATY LAIN has lived in L.A., Berkeley, London, Boston, Eugene, Bowling Green, Tacoma, Townsend Montana, and Portland. She wants to move to Paris.