Christmas in Florida

In the essay What Do Our Hearts Treasure (January 1966), E. B. White captures the sense of “unreality” that a New Englander feels spending Christmas in Florida. He and his wife, Katharine, have motored south from Maine to Sarasota, where they will spend the holiday alone together. His description of their rented house perfectly fits so many Florida houses built in the era of my own Florida childhood:

Our pleasure palace was built of cinder blocks and was painted shocking pink. The principal tree on the place was a tall power pole sprouting transformers; it stood a few feet from the canal and threw a pleasant shade across the drive.

EBW describes his wife’s growing depression with the holiday approaching:

I would find her weeping quietly in what seemed like elegant, if uncomfortable, surroundings. ‘It’s Vietnam that’s making me feel this way,’ she said. But I did not believe it was Vietnam. I knew her well enough, in her December phase, to know that it was something far deeper than Southeast Asia at work.

Katharine had been very ill and her declining health, which had brought them to spend a winter away from their beloved farm in Maine and their grandchildren, weighed on them both. Yet EBW prefers to blame the “unreality” of Florida, especially at Christmas:

Like everything else in Florida, the birds seemed inappropriate. I happen to admire the mourning dove, but by no stretch of the eardrum can its lament be called Christmassy. I like to see the turkey buzzard wheeling in the sky, but he is not a merry bird, like the chickadee; his vigil is for the dying.

The Whites were not alone in their lack of holiday cheer. A repairman who returns day after day to work on the broken heating system is found “in a kneeling position, as though he were a figure in a creche….He, too, seemed melancholy, though he did not weep.”

The essay takes its title from what eventually lifts the Whites’ spirits: packages from their son back home in Maine. One contains a program from their grandchildren’s school pageant at which their granddaughter had recited a poem called “What Do Our Hearts Treasure?” Another box brings a branch cut from a fir tree that “wore the look and carried the smell of authenticity” of the season and which they hung above the fireplace and decorated with paper ornaments made by the grandkids. What had been missing all along was not only the crisp air of snowy Maine and balsam scent of a Christmas tree chopped in the woods, but the company of loved ones. This token from home lifts EBW’s spirits so that he can conclude on a hopeful note:

We were in business at last. I gazed out across the pass to where the soft and feathery Australian pines were outlined against the bright sky. They had hardened up momentarily for this hour of splendor. They were spruce! They were birch! They were fir! Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight!

Christmas 1964 with my brothers. The lagoon is in the background. I'm showing off a brand new "Skipper" doll (Barbie's younger sister) and wearing some sort of Swiss costume that a relative had sent me from a trip to Europe.Christmas 1964 with my brothers. The lagoon is in the background. I’m showing off a brand new “Skipper” doll (Barbie’s younger sister) and wearing some sort of Swiss costume that a relative had sent me from a trip to Europe.

Personal Reflections:

EBW writes that their house bordered a canal, “locally called a bayou.” I grew up on a “lagoon,” from whose banks alligators regularly crawled up to sun themselves on our lawn and, once, to swim in our pool. The lagoon was unsuitable for our swimming as, in addition to alligators, snapping turtles of all sizes called its brackish waters home. About once a year, some poor unleashed dog (as most dogs were in those days) would become a gator’s lunch. Florida may be “unreal” but not for its lack of nature, a good deal of which is deadly; our yard also boasted colorful flowering oleander bushes, which I was repeatedly warned had killed a troop of boy scouts who had used oleander branches to roast weenies around a camp fire. Why anyone would risk camping in Florida was beyond comprehension for my mother, who had grown up in New Hampshire where the woods, by her telling and Robert Frost’s, were welcoming or at least not so full of peril.

Having been born in Florida, I never felt the unreality of celebrating the holidays at a latitude where the possibility of a white Christmas was only somewhat greater than Santa’s actually squeezing down our chimney. We faithfully decorated a real tree with lights, ornaments and tinsel, which I only dimly recognized as stand-ins for icicles. In fact, I had to wait until I was six to see snow for the first time on a trip north in the winter of 1965 to visit my brothers at their prep school. I didn’t see snow again until twelve years later as a freshman in college.

My first encounter with snow in 1965. The boots and snow suit were purchased especially for the trip and outgrown before they could be worn again.

My first encounter with snow in 1965. The boots and snow suit were purchased especially for the trip and outgrown before they could be worn again.

My mother never got used to celebrating Christmas in Florida. A day that rightfully should have been spent inside by a roaring fire or outside throwing snowballs often found us unwrapping our presents poolside and playing (outdoor) tennis afterward. She would have identified with Katharine White’s melancholy, especially later in life when she and my father were left to celebrate Christmas in Florida by themselves after we children had grown up and migrated north to white Christmases of our own.

As an adult, I’ve spent my Christmases in Manhattan, Washington, DC, Paris and Cambridge, and the further I get from childhood, the less the traditional holiday trappings matter. What my heart still treasures is being with family, especially my children. I hope for the Whites’ sake that they didn’t spend many Christmases without their loved ones nearby.


3 Responses to “Christmas in Florida”

  1. 1 brother ricky December 26, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    Fun read, and pix a bonus. I’ve recently seen the diving board pic – it was an xmas card, right? As for your first foray in the snow at the Andover Inn, I do recall that it happened (photo establishes that much without my poor excuse for a memory). For mom, getting you to see snow was rather the equivalent of a bat mitzvah – or maybe a baptism
    in ice, if you prefer.

  2. 2 Janice Miller December 29, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    I, too, long for a white Christmas up north. When you are from New England and you move to Florida, it is quite traumatic and depressing. I shared that with Barbara. It is just “not normal” for my reindeer to be alongside my pansies! I was cutting hedges yesterday, while my friends up north were shoveling snow! Yes, they are very envious, as I would also be. Maybe next year we can exchange homes for the holidays — at least so I can get it out of my system; and to realize, once and for all, that it is nice to look at, but that I would be too uncomfortable in that cold weather! Janice

  3. 3 Christopher Zimny September 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I just got a major case of goosebumps. I read that article about a week ago in one of his collections of essays, but I always wondered where in Florida he was writing about. I thought it a long shot and I never looked into it, but he stayed where I’m typing this, in Sarasota. Awesome.

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