Cactus-fruit pies, jousting competitions, and contraband bottles of whisky washing ashore have made for some memorable Christmases-past in Florida. Over the years, despite frontier hardships, wars and storms, folks have found distinctive ways to celebrate the religious holiday in Florida.
The first Christmas celebration on Florida soil is thought to have been the very first in North America. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his entourage of more than 600 men landed on the Gulf Coast in 1539 and camped for the winter about a half-mile from the present-day location of Tallahassee.
Since 12 priests accompanied them, it is probable that they held a Christmas Mass in the woods of North Florida, historians say. A state plaque now marks the site.
A different kind of celebration was held a couple of centuries later on the other side of the peninsula, in St. Augustine. Townspeople and soldiers huddled inside the fort during a British raid on Christmas Day. As the British artillery roared outside, soldiers played guitars and mouth harps to make the hours as jolly as possible.
The settlement’s governor announced a Christmas bonus for the soldiers, even though the hard-pressed colony couldn’t afford it. The governor believed, however, that the gesture was important to lift morale.
Some years later, a soldier in St. Augustine described a Christmas celebration like this: “A very good dinner, roasted turkey and pig, corned beef, ham, plum pudding and pumpkin tarts.’’ He added that about 30 companions spent the evening singing.
In the middle of the state in 1850, Orlando was a frontier town. As such, a typical holiday meal was reported to include bear and deer meat, sweet potatoes, homemade cheese and cornbread with lots of syrup made from sugar cane. A host might barbecue a hog or a steer.
At the 1870 southern outposts in Florida, far-flung neighbors would trek through the swamp to a centrally located home. They would sit down to a feast of ’possum, fattened for a month on a sweet potato diet. A prickly pear pie, made with the fruit of a cactus sometimes called Indian figs, often was served for dessert.
Floridians, especially those in smaller towns, began to celebrate with fireworks in the late 19th century. In towns like Tampa, “jousting” contests grew popular. Married men and boys under age 16 were not allowed to compete. Eligible “knights” rode on horseback, wearing colorful costumes and carrying lances 8 feet long. They charged at a structure and attempted to spear a ring hanging from it. The practice continued into the 20th century.
In 1925, during the peak of Prohibition, a winter storm off Daytona Beach resulted in a surprise gift of contraband whisky for coastal dwellers. After a storm-tossed schooner sank, its illegal cargo washed up for several weeks.
Over the years as new Floridians arrived from all over the world, ethnic foods spiced up the holiday flavor. Such savory dishes as Finnish rutabaga casserole, Minorcan bread pudding, and African romaine salad with oranges became familiar to the wider community.
In recent decades, even NASA joined in the holiday spirit. When the Melbourne area became home to the space shuttle, officials announced they would keep the landing pad open on Christmas Eve—in case Santa Claus was forced to make an emergency landing.
© Florida Humanities Council