Going Virtual, the Annual Manhattan Beach Pier Lighting Offers a Much-needed Glow This Holiday Season

The show must go on.

  • Category
    People, Social Scene
  • Written by
    Scott Sanford Tobis
  • Above
    Photographed by Tiffany N. Nguyen

“A pier lighting? What sort of Christmas celebration is that?” was the question that came to mind when I first heard about the Manhattan Beach Pier Lighting and Holiday Stroll, which will celebrate its 31st anniversary in muted, pandemic fashion this holiday season.  

ABOVE: Photographed by Denise Taylor

After experiencing a fun-filled evening eight years ago complete with gingerbread cookie decorating, live reindeer and a multitude of lit Christmas trees lining the pier—accompanied by the sound of the Vince Guaraldi Trio and what appeared to be half the population of Manhattan Beach—I had my answer.

First established in 1989, the Pier Lighting was initially just a way to celebrate the holiday season in an unusual fashion, albeit in a manner uniquely suited to the South Bay. Per tradition, Manhattan Beach Parks and Recreation displays 90 trees—adorned with Christmas lights—across the pier for one week in November or early December, depending on the year.

At a predetermined time, everyone gathers up and down Manhattan Beach Avenue and awaits the lighting of the pier—not dissimilar to the traditional lighting of the massive Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center in the “other” Manhattan nearly 3,000 miles away. Lights on the tree-shaped Christmas decorations on top of the aquarium and on the trees lining the entire pier are switched on. The requisite “oohs,” “aahs” applause and a few giggles emanate from the crowd. Then everyone rejoins the Holiday Stroll, supporting the same local businesses that made this event possible.

“It totally brings the community and businesses together. It gives us all a chance to mingle and talk socially during such a fun, festive night.”

Many years ago, the Pier Lighting and Holiday Stroll were separate events. Kelly Stroman of the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce describes how Pete Moffett, owner of Manhattan Coolers (back in the day), joined forces with Dana and Nancy McFarland, the original owners of LuLu’s, and the owner of Barbie K to do a bit of nightime holiday shopping—an event that eventually became the Holiday Open House.

ABOVE: Photographed by Laura Fay

In 1994 the popular events merged with the Holiday Stroll, organized by the Downtown Manhattan Beach Business + Professional Association. Local businesses—ranging from Mama D’s (whose employees provided tasty garlic knots to the hungry visitors) and Manhattan Creamery to {pages} a bookstore and Sketchers, among many others—stayed open late and provided goodies and Christmas goodwill to the ever-growing crowds.

By last year, the audience had grown so much that an estimated 20,000 visitors filled the downtown streets to witness the lighting of the pier and soak in the festive atmosphere of local businesses. Of course, children of all ages flocked to the most popular destination: the make-your-own-gingerbread-cookie table at Becker’s Bakery & Deli. Kit Becker, who runs the landmark shop, has no memory of the first event—understandably, as she had yet to be born.

Becker’s is a true South Bay landmark—a family-owned business founded in 1942 and now managed by Kit, great-granddaughter of founder Harry Becker. Along with being the home of their “world-famous country buttercream,” it is also a uniquely nut-free facility. This bakery is a true destination spot for locals all year.

ABOVE: Photographed by Jeff Poe

When questioned about his experience with the annual Manhattan Beach tradition, Todd Becker—the current owner and Kit’s father—told Kit that he remembers starting the gingerbread decorating the first year the Holiday Stroll began. “The first couple years were kinda busy, and then it just exploded and got crazy,” he shared. “Last year we could barely get people out the door at the end of the night and barely keep the thousands of cookies we make on the table! We probably go through them in about two hours.”

Kit elaborates on her personal experience. “I’ve loved the event and have always looked forward to it my whole life,” she says. “I would count down the days just like Christmas because it was such a fun family event for us. My family and friends would all hang out in the back of the bakery while the festivities were going on out front, and we’d watch the madness. It totally brings the community and businesses together. It gives us all a chance to mingle and talk socially during such a fun, festive night. Our customers always ask us and make sure we’re doing the cookie decorating every year. Although this year it won’t be the same, we’re still offering cookie kits to buy and take home throughout the holidays.”

Over the years, the highlights of the event have included live musicians and DJs, carolers, reindeer and much, much more. Children of all ages scatter throughout the downtown area, playing hide-and-seek (or just hiding from their parents), while adults drink wine or hot chocolate from plastic cups. It truly is a magical time that everyone in the South Bay should experience at some point.

As fun and soul-enriching as the evening might be, it will always be about the gingerbread cookies to me. I’ve already ordered my home cookie kit and will celebrate my own private version of the Pier Lighting and Holiday Stroll with my son at home this year, with the hope that next year will bring back the tradition with even more joy, holiday spirit and sense of community.

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