A Florida Christmas to remember
As a child growing up on the Treasure Coast in the 1960s and early ’70s, I always had difficulty relating to popular images of Christmas such as carolers singing in snow-covered villages, sweater-clad ice skaters gliding over a frozen pond or horses merrily pulling sleighs. We simply didn’t have snow for the holidays, and many Christmases were warm enough to go to the beach.
The image of snow at Christmas undoubtedly was romanticized by Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives in the 1800s whose prints depicted such scenes and later reaffirmed in 1942 by Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, still the best-selling worldwide single of all time.
In our family, we developed our own inventive Christmas customs without snow.
Because there were eight children in our family, my mom would get us all together to recreate the Nativity, which my dad would photograph for their Christmas cards. As our family grew each year, so did the number of angels and shepherds. My oldest sister, Cater, and my oldest brother, Chuck, were always Mary and Joseph, and whoever was the youngest was the baby Jesus. Our mutt, White Spot, always played the role of the livestock.
Another holiday custom was Christmas-tree hunting. My dad’s friend, Vinnie Gorham, had a road construction company, so in early December he and my dad would get a couple of Vinnie’s trucks and they’d load our families into them, not necessarily an easy task. Vinnie had eight kids, too.
We’d head from the Gorhams’ house in Fort Pierce to undeveloped General Development Corp. land in Port St. Lucie. The land had once been ocean bottom and the pines looked like they were growing in snow when photographed. Armed with handsaws and, in later years, chain saws, Vinnie and my dad would cut down an ample amount of young pines. Because the young Florida sand pines were so scrawny, we’d use wire clothes hangers to bind several together to create one decent tree. We once put as many as four together to create the tree for our living room.
We’d share the trees with other family members and friends, and one always went to my paternal grandparents, E.R. “Putz’’ and Margaret Enns, which brings me to another custom. For some 25 years, we spent our Christmas Eves in the living room of their little home with the big yard on Citrus Avenue in Fort Pierce, with our brood of eight and my Uncle Eddie and Aunt Diane’s four children and my Aunt Susan and Uncle Steve’s two.
My grandmother always decorated her house the same: Christmas lights over the front of the house; her little pine cone men on her bay window; egg decorations created by my aunt and the little elf that looked like my cousin Stephen on her tree. Christmas Eve fare was always the same — oyster stew, followed by the brightly frosted Christmas cookies she had us make with her weeks before.
My grandmother would give us her gifts that night, but before receiving them we’d all have to give an individual performance. The performances included reading Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas or a passage from the Bible, singing a carol or playing a tune on a musical instrument, the latter choice often sending my grandfather’s fat beagle, Mox, howling.
My grandmother’s gifts were things she had knitted for us, the most common being cable-knit sweaters. One year all 14 of her grandchildren received Afghan quilts. The last Christmas we spent with her, in 1983, she had knitted Christmas stockings with our names on them, even though most of us were grown.
We knew that Christmas would be her last. My grandfather had died in April and my grandmother in the months before Christmas had been diagnosed with leukemia. Her illness had progressed to the point that she was spending most of her time in bed. But somehow she rallied to come to the living room that last Christmas Eve. We had no performances from the kids that night — maybe just a reading of the Christmas story in Luke 2 — but my grandmother put on a performance of her own.
Sitting in her favorite chair in a corner of the living room, she drew a rapt audience with her monologue about her earlier Christmases. One of the stories I best remember is how she and my grandfather one year raised turkeys at the citrus grove in which they were then living so they could get enough money together to buy bicycles for my dad, their oldest, and my Uncle Eddie. Somehow the turkeys escaped from the barn, putting their Christmas purchases in jeopardy, but luckily were recaptured over several days.
My grandmother concluded her soliloquy with a testimony of faith. I didn’t know much about her religious beliefs except that she was Presbyterian. On many Sundays, she had sacrificed her own attendance at First Presbyterian Church so she could look after the youngest children in our family while my mom and dad and the older kids attended Catholic Mass. Cloaked in a red corduroy dress that last Christmas Eve, she recited the Apostle’s Creed from memory. “This is what I believe,’’ she told us.
The next time I saw her in that red corduroy dress was a month later when she was laid out in Bill Yates’s funeral parlor.
She certainly gave us a Christmas to remember.
Reach Gregory Enns or 772.940.9005.