How a beloved author learned to love Christmas in Florida
“It seemed to me that my first Christmas at Cross Creek would break my heart,” wrote Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a journalist who left Upstate New York in 1928 for the wilds of the Florida subtropics.
Rawlings, who became one of Florida’s (and the nation’s) most acclaimed writers, knew she would miss the snow and the roaring log fires of traditional Christmases up North. But as she settled into the small Cracker community of Cross Creek 15 miles south of Gainesville, she began to experience “culture shock.”
“It was unreasonable to be outraged by a temperature of 75 degrees, hot blazing sunshine and red birds singing lustily instead of Christmas carolers,” she wrote in “American Cookery” magazine in December 1942. “I had moved to the subtropics, and the lush life had become my life. Yet the bland air infuriated me.
“In pique, I built a great roaring log fire in the living room of the old Florida farmhouse—and was obliged to fling wide all doors and windows. But as I set the table on the sunny veranda for Christmas dinner, the yellow flames in the open fireplace were comforting.”
Eventually she became acclimated to her new surroundings—with the help of her new neighbors. They taught her about Florida backwoods culture, and these lessons became material for her novels, short stories, and memoirs. Her novel “The Yearling,” about a boy who adopts an orphaned fawn, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1939.
In time, they also taught her how to celebrate Christmas Florida-style.
“The men, and some of the women, consider Christmas as one of the great days for hunting. That…goes back to something solid and important, when men made their living, pioneer fashion, in the woods. The relation of man to nature continues,” she wrote in the article, headlined “Christmas at Cross Creek.”
“It is the mode to cook for Christmas dinner whatever the men bring down with their guns. That, too, is stable and good…The men have brought it in and the women have cooked it, and an old, good way of life is maintained.
“The beverage is likely to be Florida ‘corn,’ or moonshine liquor, with, for the more delicate or puritanical women, home-made Scuppernong or blackberry or elderberry wine,” Rawlings wrote. “What the men hunt for Christmas dinner depends on what game frequents their locale. In the Big Scrub, in Gulf Hammock, in the Florida Everglades, it is wild turkey or deer. At Cross Creek, it is quail or dove or rabbit or wild ducks.”
The holiday celebration did not include decorating Christmas trees, she noted. Instead, her neighbors festooned their pine cabins with wild mistletoe and boughs of holly, bright with red berries. Rawlings grew to cherish these traditions and the sense of community that she felt with her new-found friends in the subtropics.
“I have come to love the lazy and casual Florida backwoods Christmas,” she wrote. “The function of all such festive days is to give us a sense of cozy hominess, of belonging to something stable and lovely. And it is all a matter of the things to which one is accustomed. Now that Cross Creek is ‘home,’ I should be as infuriated as on that first Christmas day, if snow fell, and sparrows pecked at ice. The red bird’s song is the accepted Christmas paean.”