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A Very Scientology Christmas: Inside L. Ron Hubbard's Winter Wonderland

Since 1983, the Church of Scientology has ran a Santa Claus photo-op on Hollywood Boulevard, where they hand out their founder's writings to visitors, but they deny using it to attract new members.
Photo by the author

Known for its historic Crossroads of the World outdoor mall, the city of Hollywood has become the crossroads of kitsch, from Johnny Depp impersonators to street drag queens. Every holiday season on Hollywood Boulevard, the campiest Christmas decorations come from the Church of Scientology: The controversial religious organization sets up a Christmas display called L. Ron Hubbard's Winter Wonderland, where a man dressed as Santa Claus sits on a red chair in front of a fake white mountain. At the church's Hollywood location, a 60-foot Christmas tree stands by rows of smaller, equally festive trees and a billboard that says, "WELCOME TO THE AGE OF ANSWERS… ALL ARE WELCOME."


In 1992, the Detroit Free Press reported that the tradition started when Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard first donated a tree to the city in 1983. At the time, gang violence plagued Hollywood. The city even partially blockaded cars from driving down the road in the early 90s. Hubbard's donation served as a symbol to show the city he had helped the community. "Mr. Hubbard's contribution was viewed as an investment in the community and helped revive it," a Church of Scientology spokesperson says in an email. "It was received with very warm thanks from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and many others."

One ex-Scientology member, who blogs about the religion under the name Alanzo, views the Winter Wonderland as a pure promotional stunt to boost the religion's reputation. "The Winter Wonderland functions as a PR activity for the Church of Scientology to interact with people in Hollywood, not just on Hollywood Boulevard, but with people in the city government as well," he says in an email. "It's something they can point to as a contribution they are making."

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The spokesperson denied that the Church uses the Winter Wonderland to lure in converts. "While visitors are more than welcome to visit the Church's Information Center next door if they would like to learn more about Scientology, Winter Wonderland's purpose is not to grow the Church's membership," the representative says. "It is a community activity put on by the Church and the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard for Hollywood, all of Los Angeles, and the many foreign visitors that flock to Hollywood Boulevard. Members of all faiths participate—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs—and it is for the enjoyment of all."


In recent years, documentaries have criticized the church—both Going Clear and Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath have alleged the Church harassed former members, amongst a league of shocking claims. (The Church of Scientology has repeatedly denied all accusations.)

When I visited the L. Ron Hubbard's Winter Wonderland on Wednesday night, a sense of fear hovered over the sound of a speaker blasting "Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child." A blond gay couple gritted their teeth as they walked by. "Scientology!" one scream-whispered as they increased their speed. While Scientologists in long black robes reminiscent of Hogwarts uniforms paced the sidewalk and handed out Dianetics flyers, several teenagers stared at the tree. I asked one of them if I could ask him his thoughts on the church, and he yelled, "Hell no!" Mostly foreign tourists seemed to walk through the Winter Wonderland to sit on Santa's lap.

To get the full Scientology experience, I decided to get a photo with Santa.

Photo by Alexis Gross

A Scientologist approached me as I walked towards Santa's makeshift grey house. He held a black camera. The Scientologist told me about how Hubbard created the Winter Wonderland to help the Hollywood community, and then offered to take a photo of me on my smart phone. I agreed after putting my phone on airplane mode, so he couldn't read any incoming texts. I climbed up the stairs and sat on the couch next to Santa. Through "ho ho ho's," Santa made a Scientology sales pitch; he wanted me to take a Hubbard book home with me. I got up to leave once the Scientologists had taken the photos, but then Santa started yelling: "Don't leave!" he screamed. "You need your gift!" He handed me a copy of L. Ron Hubbard's The Way to Happiness: A Common Sense Guide to Better Living. "It has many chapters," Santa said.


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Each chapter title consists of a life lesson. Some morals, like "Don't Murder" and "Be Competent," are obvious life rules, while others, such as "Don't Be Promiscuous," come across as judgmental. "L. Ron Hubbard wrote The Way to Happiness in 1982 as a nonreligious, commonsense guide to better living to halt the moral decline of society that he observed at the time," the Church of Scientology spokesperson says. Although they insist the book lacks religious elements, some chapters, most notably "Honor and Help Your Parents," are straight-up Ten Commandment rip-offs.

"If you've ever read The Way to Happiness, you'll find that it is filled with moral teachings that are entirely common sense, like 'brush your teeth,' etc. (not kidding)," Alanzo says. "What's even more astounding about The Way to Happiness are the claims of miraculous reductions in crime rates in areas where the book has been handed out." For instance, Scientology has claimed crime rates declined in St Louis's impoverished neighborhoods after church member Barry Coziahr handed out 13,000 copies of the book to residents.

L. Ron Hubbard's Winter Wonderland is unlikely to change minds this holiday season. As I read through The Way to Happiness, a convertible covered in Christmas lights drove up to the curb. A partying tourist in a Santa hat sat perched on top of his seat. "Merry Christmas, brother!" he shouted in an Australian accent.

A few blocks down on Hollywood Boulevard, a man who dresses up as Spongebob Squarepants for a living claimed few people have stopped to see Santa at the Church of Scientology, although shoppers crowd the street in December. "[People dressed in costumes have] no competition [from the Scientologists] because are live," Spongebob Squarepants said. "At Winter Wonderland… they can't interact [with you] as much."

The Scientology sales pitch sounds odd when placed in the context of Santa, though the Church's spokesperson says, "Scientologists most definitely celebrate Christmas. In fact, L. Ron Hubbard encouraged all members of the Church not only to celebrate the holiday but to uphold and embody what he believed to be its real tradition: peace on earth and goodwill to all." But Alanzo recalls Scientology teaching different messages about Christmas behind closed doors.

"Scientology upper levels teach there was no Christ, that the Christ story was a mental implant placed in human minds millions of years ago in order to confuse and trap humans on earth and to make them unaware of their true spiritual nature," Alanzo says. "Scientologists participate in [Christmas] celebrations on an organizational level purely for recruitment and PR."