MAXWELL:  Sunshine State’s glitz melts the holiday spirit

12/22/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Christmas in Florida is, like the state itself, a tropical bazaar. As a native Floridian, condemned to the perpetual heat, humidity and greenery of Fort Lauderdale, I always have had ambivalent feelings about Christmas in the Sunshine State.

Even as a young child, I knew that Christmas in Florida was a substitution, a contradiction, an over-compensation. I knew that Christmas was a time for Jack Frost; snow and snowmen; horse-drawn sleighs and bells; kids sledding down steep inclines. And I had witnessed scenes of carolers entombed in thick sweaters braving bone-chilling cold.

But, like other South Floridians, I baked on December 25. We went fishing, golfing, tanning, water-skiing, swimming. And believe it or not, many of us drank lemonade beneath sprawling banyans. Some of us even mowed the lawn.

And, of course, if venturing near a major roadway, past yards dotted with plastic pink flamingos, we worried about being run down by pale Canadians, Yankees and Midwesterners. Christmas in Florida was and is the time of the tourist, when strangers have more relevance than relatives.

This old Yuletide angst returned the other day when two colleagues invited me along to watch one of this area’s plethora of annual boat parades. Instead of sleigh rides, Floridians deploy armadas of decorated water crafts.

While living in Fort Lauderdale, I never missed the boat parade, a bona fide Florida spectacle, some years attracting crowds as energetic as those at New York’s Time Square celebration on New Year’s Eve. Now, as then, most of the boats are wonders unto themselves, decorated with thousands of blinking lights in complex designs and topped-off with live trees fastened to their guide towers.

The obscene, aerodynamic cigarette boats and their cargo are my favorite. Invariably, handsome young men, their deep tans the picture of wealth, guide these glossy, rumbling machines over the lightly chopping water. Hanging onto the men are beautiful, bikini-clad women, displaying perfect white teeth and waving to admiring crowds. Male spectators, many of them drunk on their duffs, especially love the flirtatious female boaters wearing those little red-and-white Santa caps.

As the evening grows darker, the colorful flotilla dips and twists like a too-long water creature coming apart.

This is Christmas in Florida.

So, too, are the mega-celebrations near Disney World, in the shadow of the now-familiar Earffel Tower, the municipal water tower decked out with Mickey Mouse ears. At the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Universal Studios, Sea World and other sites, carolers and spectators grasping candles throng the narrow walkways and plazas. Parades, complete with elaborate floats and human and animated celebrities, pass by with eye-popping regularity.

This is Christmas Florida-style.

Here, commercial giants compete for who can do Christmas the biggest. Last year when I visited Mousedom, Sea World boasted that its 400-foot metal Sky Tower was Central Florida’s biggest Christmas tree. Not to be outdone, the folks over at Universal Studios had fake snow that looked very real on the park’s life-like New York Street set.

Disney-MGM Studios, never runners up, sported a 70-foot tree with 2-million lights. And what is this monstrosity called: The wall of angels. And, still in the Yuletide spirit, Disney-MGM flew in Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Bo Peep and other characters from the hit movie Toy Story.

I try my best to avoid such gross commercialization because for me, Christmas is a time of remembrance, pure nostalgia and sentimentality. Although many transplants fondly remember their first Christmas here, I cannot recall one that I truly enjoyed. I fondly remember my first white Christmas, however. It was in Chicago in 1952, at my uncle’s home on the Southside. I was 7 years old. Christmas has not been the same since.

Snow fell for two days, and I stood outside for hours, getting sicker than I had ever been. But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sailing down snow-packed slopes on trash can lids; flying off a snow-ladened roof on an ironing board we had found in an alley; learning how to ice skate on a real frozen lake.

And the snowballs. Instead of throwing chinaberries and oranges at my friends, I threw snowballs. My cousin and I even made a snowman in the front yard, trimming him with an old red coat, a brown stingy brim and a Prince Edward cigar hanging punkishly from his mouth.

After I returned to Fort Lauderdale, none of my friends believed that an entire lake could freeze over. And, for sure, no one could turn a trash can lid into a sled! But I had photographs and became something of a hero.

I long for that Chicago Christmas, when toys were simple, when the fellowship of family and friends were enough, when the atmosphere and weather were Christmas per se. Christmas in Florida has never been an intimate affair for me _ but an event for serving the material needs of strangers. Here cold temperatures are considered “bad weather.”

Here, almost everyone is “from somewhere else,” making Florida an escape, not just from bad weather but from bad lives, as well.

For most Florida residents, natives and transplants alike, Christmas is a state of mind. It has to be. Otherwise, few of us could tolerate its reality _ its superficiality and commercialization.