Florida Holidays: My First Florida Christmas
The signs of Christmas are everywhere. Salvation Army bell ringers, decked-out stores and Christmas muzak streaming from speakers. But through it all, the Florida sun shines, striking an odd note for some us whose impressions of the season were formed our Northern childhoods.
The contrast was particularly marked my first Florida Christmas. My brother and I had just moved here to live with our dad.
Always an early adopter, Dad had surprised us with the latest thing in Christmas trees. It was 6-foot-high shiny aluminum confection, illuminated by a spotlight on the floor attached to a translucent color wheel, which turned the tree from blue, to green, to red to yellow. We finished off decorating by filling a large vase with Florida holly - a.k.a. Brazilian pepper (ours was the age of innocence).
Christmas Eve Day was sunny and warm. Mockingbirds sang in the mango tree. Grapefruits were ripe. Hibiscus bloomed. Mullet jumped in the canal behind the house. The air was scented with jasmine. I felt like I was in a movie.
But the day also felt a little flat. I missed the smell of a real Christmas tree. The sound of boots crunching on snow. But most of all, I missed my grandparents in Northern New York. We’d always spent Christmas Eve at their house.
My grandmother, whom we called "Ga," was one of those old-fashioned grandmas. She darned socks and saved stale bread for stuffing and bread pudding. I never saw her in slacks. And every year, right after Thanksgiving, she started her Christmas baking.
First came the fruitcakes, because they had to “rest” before being eaten. They were a treat that seemed to appeal only to adult palates. But then came the cookies: Fill cookies, gingerbread men, decorated cut-out sugar cookies and and my favorites -- coconut macaroons. Most were put away until Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve supper was always oyster stew, which we loathed but mustered through in anticipation of dessert. Open season on those cookies!
There was a little ritual. We’d gather around my grandmother, seated in her platform rocker in the “front room” and sing Christmas carols. Ga couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. I can still produce her flat, off key version of Away in a Manger and get a laugh from my brother. Then we’d gorge ourselves on cookies, and after laying out a plate for the reindeer, go to bed with a sugar high and visions of sugar plums (and books and sleds and skates, etc.) dancing in our heads.
As my first Christmas Eve day in Florida drew to a close, I was homesick. My dad was making one of three things he knew how to cook for our supper: London broil – tough, but tasty. We also had a bowl of citrus fruit -- some from our trees -- and Dad had picked up a package of Oreos.
Then the doorbell rang. Special delivery! A box postmarked Alexandria Bay, NY. What could it be? The writing on box was in Ga’s backhand scrawl. We ripped it open to reveal a Carr’s Biscuits tin. The same tin had been doing duty, holding surplus cookies in my grandmother’s kitchen, for as long as I could remember. Inside was the smell of Christmas – spicy and sweet. There was a row of coconut macaroons on top.
After supper, Daddy put an Andy Williams Christmas record on the turntable and settled into his usual spot on the couch. It was a warm night; the air conditioner was humming. But it was Christmas Eve, so Dad said we could light a fire in our fireplace, too. We’d collected driftwood and fire burned bright. Then we brought out the biscuit tin and ate the cookies until we were stuffed.
We were really happy to be with our dad.
I still have that biscuit tin, and every year at Christmastime I bake cookies and fill it up. I enjoy sharing them and maintaining that thread from days gone by. This year, I may add fruitcake to the repertoire. I guess I’ve finally gotten old enough to appreciate it – and more than old enough to appreciate the fact that Christmas is a state of mind, and cherished memories can be made anywhere.