Merry tropical Christmas

At first light, the little ones would sneak out of bed to look for telltale signs of night visitors bearing gifts.

Cookies and milk? Most children in these Hispanic homes gathered hay or fresh grass before sundown and left it with water in clear sight. Camels get hungry and thirsty, you know, especially when traveling long distances on tropical nights.

Members of these families would have exchanged a few gifts on Dec. 25, at the Feast of the Nativity. As the decades passed in Florida, they may even have added a visit from St. Nicholas. But they would have visited neighbors for caroling and parties during the entire 12-day Christmas season.

Everyone knew that the traditional day for gift-giving was El Dia de los Reyes Magos, which marked the arrival of the three kings from the East with gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Christ child.

Christmas wasn't over until Jan. 6, when the camels ate the hay.

"There's no question that -- along with the weather -- religious traditions played an important role, if not the most important role, in shaping Christmas down here up until World War II," said Kevin McCarthy, an English professor at the University of Florida.

"That was before air-conditioning and mosquito control opened the state up to the whole world. Combine that with interstate highways and everything changed -- forever. Christmas down here started looking like Christmas everywhere else."

Stop and think about it. Most of the world celebrates Christmas in the tropics or during what is summer in the Southern Hemisphere. But when most people dream of a "merry little Christmas" they imagine tastes, smells and sights from frosty winter festivities in Europe and North America.

So it's hard to imagine palm trees and Christmas, unless they are in sacred images of shepherds, sheep, camels and kings near Bethlehem.

But McCarthy was able to find hints of what a tropical Christmas was like before the spread of shopping malls that resemble fake versions of New England villages swaddled in blankets of snow. The result was a breezy volume of history, tales, recipes and photos entitled, logically enough, "Christmas in Florida."

For generations, the Christmas season had a uniquely Catholic flavor in the tropics. In Florida, Christmas began in 1539 when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his soldiers gathered with 12 priests for Mass at a site in what is now Tallahassee. These were, said McCarthy, the first Catholic Christmas rites in North America.

Meanwhile, several Southern states embraced Christmas long before the holiday was accepted up north.

"New England Protestants, especially the Puritans, had Christmas banned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659," McCarthy noted. "The most Southern state of all ... was Florida, a land settled by Spanish Catholics and therefore more willing to celebrate the nativity of Christ."

In addition to religious traditions, another simple reality shaped Christmas in the American tropics. Settlements were small and remote. Most early Floridians were poor and they learned to celebrate with whatever they found around them.

They didn't have fine meat so they made do with local fare, no matter how humble. In the 1870s, an early settler near Hypoluxo was forced to improvise a main course for his neighbors. He settled on a feast of possum, "which he had fattened on sweet potatoes for over a month," noted McCarthy.

Settlers in the tropics didn't have snow, so Santa Claus arrived by boat. This led to a beautiful tropical tradition -- decorating boats with strings of lights and then parading them along the coast at night. A few people even decided that Christmas trees looked especially beautiful under water.

One thing led to another. Christmas was Christmas.

"They didn't have Christmas ornaments, so they used seashells, sand dollars, starfish or driftwood," said McCarthy. "They used native scrub pines, since that was all they had. They couldn't have a Christmas that looked like New England, so they improvised. They came up with Christmas traditions that made sense where they were. ...

"But the forces of homogenization have been a work for a long time now -- TV, movies, advertising. A lot of beautiful things, a lot of beautiful traditions have been lost down here."