O Christmas Palm, O Christmas Palm

The tree filled up so much of the station wagon that driving home was an adventure.

But it was worth the extra effort. Things are more complex if you want a living tree, the kind you can transfer -- roots and all -- to the yard or a pot on the patio when its ritual duties are done. We are seriously considering moving this tree back indoors to decorate next Christmas.

This is Palm Beach County, after all. People do all kinds of strange things with palm trees.

"The Christmas Palm is a nice tree and it's really pretty," said the helpful Home Depot salesman. "And about this time of year, it will get red berries on it. Maybe that's why people called it the Christmas Palm. But I don't think I've heard of anyone trying to use one of these as a Christmas tree."

Why not? This is the tropics, I noted. Why not decorate a Christmas Palm here?

"I don't know how it used to be," he said. "But most people these days just want a normal Christmas tree. You know?"

We both looked at the parking lot, with its familiar holiday tent packed with dying evergreens trucked down from somewhere up north.

When I moved to South Florida, friends warned that the first Christmas would be surreal.

This is true. It feels strange the first time you hear "White Christmas" or "Jingle Bells" blasting out of the radio of a nearby convertible -- with the top down, since it's 80 degrees -- idling at a traffic light.

The shopping malls, with the help of acres of various forms of white plastic, look like icy chunks of Denver or Minneapolis that have broken free and floated south. Entire neighborhoods are wrapped in icicle twinkle lights. And if you glance into the giant front window of the archetypal South Florida home you will see the familiar glowing shape of a "normal" Christmas tree.

My theory is that what is surreal about Christmas here is that most people are trying to act like they aren't in South Florida. South Floridians are trying to celebrate somebody else's Christmas and it feels bizarre, with good reason. The "normal" Christmas just doesn't feel right.

So I have been trying to find out what Christmas was like in the tropics before the arrival of air conditioning, national television networks, roads jammed with slow-driving northerners and rows of superstores that look the same in every zip code on the planet.

I have found hints of older traditions in the parades of sailboats, shining with strings of lights. A few people still know how to make stunning wreaths out of palm fronds and seashells. There are Cuban Christmas dishes -- some topped with red and green peppers and multi-colored tortillas -- that don't look like they would play in Peoria.

Millions of people do celebrate Christmas in the tropics and, below the equator, in the middle of what is their summer. Christmas rites can be celebrated with a wide variety of traditions. Wouldn't it be depressing if the whole world tried to import our "normal" Christmas, complete with cartoon angels, sanitized mall-music carols, dumb advertisements, office-party rituals, non-sectarian symbols and the soothing sounds of car horns and cell telephones?

I wonder. Would we know a traditional Christmas if we saw one? What was Christmas like before the advent of this "normal" Christmas?

Meanwhile, my family has discovered that the fronds on a Christmas Palm are shaped just right for hanging ornaments and a few strings of lights. This tree will look just fine, matched with a Nativity scene.

In fact, listen to these words and flash back 2000 years: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them. ..."

Stop for a minute and visualize the scene in your mind. Remember that this is Bethlehem, not far from the sea, on a sandy camel path out into the desert.

Yes, it's Christmas. See the palm trees in the background?