Seventy-eight degrees, date palms tall outside the window, and my white tank top blinding in the strong morning light—this is not most people’s idea of Christmas. I’ve often heard people, those who live here, and those who don’t, complain about Florida in this way, wanting real autumn and its changing leaves; real winter with hot chocolate, wool scarves, and fireplaces lit against the crispness of the night. “It doesn’t feel like the holidays with all this heat,” they might say. And I hear that—having lived somewhere with more familiar seasons, I can understand. To the untrained eye, Florida can feel in stasis, one season of long, lingering sun melting into another, the calendar pages the only meaningful indication of change.
But this isn’t even faintly true. If you live here, of course you know the heat, moist and pressing, so physical as to be embodied, but you also know the rain—sometimes lashing, sometimes dainty enough to wonder if you’re getting wet at all—and how it can start and stop in an instant, or pour for what feels like a Noah’s slew of weeks. You know the relief of mid-October, the air finally gentle with you, ushering in the fall. And if you live in northern parts, like I do, you know that some days in December or January, you can wake to a patina of frost on the grass, your own breath guiding you forward as you cross the yard for the mail.
My family never needed any specific weather to find a festive mood. A few days before Christmas the year I turned five, my father told me to remind him to crack a window for Santa. My grandmother’s house didn’t have a chimney, so the big man would need an alternate way to deliver the presents I’d written to the North Pole about. Of course, I forgot—my father knew I would—so on Christmas morning when I arrived at his house bundled in my pink quilted coat with all my expectations, there was nothing under the tree. I started to cry, and my father said, “I told you so.” Then, after seconds of exaggerated searching, he found a note sticking out from one corner of the welcome mat and read it aloud. “Look up.” There, nestled on the roof of the house in a clear zippered sack, was a jumble of jewel-bright boxes—everything I’d asked for. I remember feeling joy, but looking back on this memory now, the feeling is magnified by appreciation—how much effort my father went through to maintain the illusion as real. Long after I stopped believing in magical men with time-bending powers, I still believe in my father and the influence of my family’s traditions: the milk and cookies; the Charlie Brown specials; sipping my mother’s special hot cocoa with a log on the fire, no matter if it is chilly or not. My favorite people gathered in one place, joking and gossiping over home-cooked plates of food. Despite the heat, the holidays mean the same here as they do anywhere else. They’re an opportunity to appreciate being close to family, those chosen and blood.
Over the years, as everyone grew up and spread out, our celebrations got smaller, became more immediate, more about being together for a few important hours because it was often difficult to meet regularly in our day-to-day. But these rituals still felt necessary to me. So when I married my husband, I resolved to keep those traditions in addition to starting our own. Neither J nor I are big on most holidays. We don’t care about Easter or do fancy dinners on Valentine’s, but on December 1, we always put up a tree—one year, a glorious, thick-bodied fir, our first real tree, it filled the apartment with that delicious, oft-imitated scent; we ordered special ornaments commemorating every year of our marriage; we hung stockings with our initials and those of our two pups on them; and on Christmas Eve, we made pancakes at midnight and allowed ourselves to open just one gift. Afterward, we put on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and laughed ourselves sick, talking trash about the jerky Claymation and outdated modes of speech. Bliss.
This year, as is the case for many families, there’s a blurriness to the days, an absence of vitality—the urgency of COVID-19 making impossible even the small gatherings we’ve traditionally relied on for a boost. And peak season at the shipping company where J works—starting Black Friday and ebbing into January—has been especially punishing in the midst of the pandemic. Since March, time has felt stuck, the whole country held in stasis during our essential isolations. Now, more clearly than ever, I understand what a simple string of holiday lights can do to strengthen a bond. I realize how important it is for me and my family to nurture and maintain our traditions, even when we have to be apart.
We missed the first of the month, but J and I did get a tree, albeit an artificial one. We found our ornaments and tinsel, and brushed stray glitter from our cheeks. We’re looking forward to Christmas Eve at midnight, and whether in short sleeves or sweaters, we’ll be sending love to our families, doing our damnedest to cultivate the mood of togetherness, knowing that even when situations appear static, they’re ever changing.
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