An Old Time Florida Cracker Christmas
from "Travel On THE OLD ROAD"
By Ben Wheeler
As Published in "Citrus Industry" Magazine, Dec. 1998. All rights reserved.
Christmas to the Florida native, is an unusual holiday by Currier and Ives standards. Lacking most of what is considered tradition in the way of seasonal weather, it comes at the zenith of the winter vegetable and citrus harvest. Ergo the day itself is rather like the eye of a hurricane: a momentary, eerie calm in the midst of a huge storm.
The harvest season begins in October at a leisurely pace as the last of summer’s heat is still with us, steadily gaining momentum as the variety of ripening foodstuffs increases, and the nation’s populace races towards calendar’s declaration of the traditional gluttonous holiday season.
The old folk used the expression: "Catching the mule," meaning the start of the working day. In the days of draft animal power, this was an every-morning chore that preceded whatever labors lay before them. The day’s success work-wise, depended on being able to catch the mules from the lot, feed, water, and hitch them to whatever work implements were called for. This was no small accomplishment indeed, and often times the farmer ended kicked, bitten, winded, mad, etc., feeling like he’d already done at least a half-day’s work just "catching the mules!"
The observation has been made among the old folks, that the reason our modern-day sociologists, psychiatrists, and criminologists feel the need to spend years and millions attempting to understand the base side of human nature is because they’ve never worked a mule!
During the season, the common folk do their mule-catching well before daylight, taking advantage of the chance to line their pockets for the lazy summer days ahead when there will be little, if anything productive to do. "Breakfast by lamplight, walking field rows at daylight" is the rule of the season. Work days turn into work nights, and are often long enough that you have to "sleep fast" to get your rest in before its time for the next mule-catching.
Thanksgiving is largely another workday in agri-world. The tangerines are just coming in, and Northern markets are just as hungry for their pungent freshness as the growers and shippers are for the Yankee dollars they bring. Although they’re no long a stocking-staple as in years gone by, the holidays still produce a strong demand for this fragile fruit which requires hours of tedious, tender, time-eating labor to pick and ship. (They DO make the most exquisite sherbet to accompany a heavy holiday meal, by the way).
Most of the natives love to hunt and fish. A holiday table will likely be decked out with some form of game. Acorn-fed pork, turkey, venison, coon, or fresh speckled perch are considered great holiday fare. Accompanied by fresh turnip or collard greens, a bevy of homegrown sweet potatoes baked slowly in a fire-place and drowned in butter or homemade cane syrup. A possum might be shut up in a crib or chicken pen for a week or so and "cleaned out" on table scraps for the occasion. The making of a "good Christmas" depends on whatever bounty happens to befall us in the way of woods goods and vegetables for the table. Thus, any spare time is spent tending gardens and tramping the woods and streams in anticipation of the holiday.
Christmas shopping must wait for payday, as this is one of the few times in a year when hard cash money is relinquished in the name of celebration and frivolity. A new shirt, or pair of overalls, sacks of hard candy and pecans, a can of tobacco, chocolates, a jug of whiskey.... all are fair game as the lengthening shadows of Christmas Eve descend upon work-a-day-weary Florida.
Providing these "extras" for the holiday is entirely dependent upon a crop of fruit to harvest, and favorable weather to do it in. If the favorable conditions don’t materialize, the stockings and dinner plates of farmers, merchants and laborers will be the worse for it. Off-the-shelf payment-stretching MasterCard Santa is not a part of this world.
When the last of the produce has been gathered, picked, bunched, graded, washed, packed, and loaded, and the last trainload of perishables has whistled out of town, screeching over the rails and groaning crossties, the natives slip away to secure a little "Christmas" before retiring to collapse in their respective favorite resting places.
Many are the gifts that are bought in the long shadows of late afternoon on Christmas Eve, with hard-earned dollars fresh from the teller window at the bank. Local merchants stay open late to sell the bulk of their stocks of red wagons, bicycles, candy canes, groceries and toys.
When the weary souls are safely home with their treasures, evening descends and a calm descends over this small universe. Closed stores and silent streets bear witness to a deviation from the regular routine. Behind the drawn shades of humble kitchen doors, smells of wood smoke and roasting meat are punctuated by the rattle and stir of tin spoons and baking pans, as God’s highest creation closes its doors to the outer world and settles in to finish preparing for this highest and holiest of holidays.
"Yard eggs," carefully saved for a week or more, "flavor" from the Watkins truck, churned butter, and pure cane sugar meet head-on, in humble dishpans county-wide. Precious ingredients purchased with coins hoarded in a knotted kerchief, and nurtured by hands skilled from a lifetime of "making do and getting by" will be turned into cakes and pies for the occasion. Fatigued almost beyond words by the preceding months of rigorous toil, these devoted soldiers labor into the night, now with more fervor even than on the job.
Family and Church ties are bedrock here, and most homes, regardless of how humble, will be spic and span clean, with a few "extras" for gifts and food in excess of the norm for all. The extra effort, a labor of love, done in testimonial honor of God and family.
From the front room comes the smell of a pipe packed with Prince Albert tobacco, and the sound of a stump being punched up in the fireplace with an iron poker. From time to time, a soft but solid "thump" made by a gallon jug being carefully replaced on the wooden floorboards disturbs the slumber of dogs nestled in the hollowed-out dog-holes beneath the house’s wooden piers.
A fireside "taste" of the home-distilled spirit is as much a part of the occasion as the children’s parched peanuts. If Jesus Christ himself called here this evening, he would be afforded precisely the same hospitality in honor of the occasion.
The season’s magic wraps hearts with soft, downy feel of dreams worked so hard to realize for the Christmas holiday and new year to come. The huge old live oak trees stand sentinel along streets and in yards, limbs out-stretched in silent witness to this special magic that appears once a year to break the spell of a life of toil.
Getting up well before dawn, the calm of restful slumber is apparent in all things natural. Nature’s creatures wild and domestic sense a diversion from the normal order of things. Roads and tracks are ghostly silent, absent of traffic, be it horse or human. Nary a school or Church bell breaks the stillness. Groundwater has made damp places in the ruts overnight, yet remains undisturbed. The sun rises magnificently to the East, silhouetting the native palms and moss-hung oaks, moist with the morning dew, in radiant, crystal splendor. The wind begins to pick up, just a little...as the sun warms the crow’s back.
From the vantage point of a front porch, with sunlight gleaming bright enough to hurt your eyes as it moves, you can see movement. Far away, weaving back and forth across the pavement, slowly at first, but steadily increasing in speed and shrieks, that while unintelligible conveys without mistake the joy of happy children on a Christmas morning.
Hospitals and fire stations will remain open this day. The Seaboard’s "Orange Blossom Special" and Atlantic Coast Line’s "Champion" will run on schedule. The great black locomotives hurling steam into the sky and dragging a string of empty, heavy-weight coaches, diners, and sleepers. The Interstate Commerce Commission is not concerned with the quirks of human nature that cause travel to cease on this day of days.
Every one who can, will be at home taking a much-needed rest in the front room, or front porch, weather permitting, while watching those delightful, delighted children try out their new bicycles.
There will be a meal, commencing with coffee steeped to perfection in the morning. It’s presentation will wax and wane all day as a steady stream of extended family, friends, well-wishing neighbors, and the occasional jug tipper make the rounds.
It is written in the scriptures that every thing has a time and a purpose unto heaven. I happen to believe that Jesus likes to see a little cheer and merriment in the lives of his children, and the prosperity to enjoy it.
The animals will be fed this day, but the "catching" will wait for the morrow.
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