In the pines of Florida, Christmas everlasting

The perpetual peace garden at Christmas, December 2013.

The perpetual peace garden at Christmas, December 2013.

Way back during the Seminole Wars, a peaceful place in the Central Florida pines became Christmas, every day. Long-ago soldiers named it in 1837, but we owe its role as a North Pole of the South to the history and work of the Tucker family.

We know the story’s beginning thanks to Capt. Nathan S. Jarvis, a U.S. Army surgeon who kept a journal about his war adventures.

Capt. Jarvis arrived at St. Augustine by steamboat in June 1837 and, by mid-December, was with troops deep in the interior of Florida. They trudged past a deserted Seminole town, crossed the Econlockhatchee River, and on Dec. 25, reached a pine barren on what’s now Christmas Creek in east Orange County.

Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County, Florida, includes a re-creation of the original 1837 structure.

Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County, Florida, includes a re-creation of the original 1837 structure.

The soldiers built a stockade made of upright 18-foot pine logs, sharpened at the top, and named the place Fort Christmas. In just a few days, most of the troops were ordered to move deeper into Florida, leaving the fort and the area largely deserted until about 1860, when John R.A. Tucker and his family settled nearby.

The only means of travel was by oxcart or on horseback, and the Tucker home became a stopping-place for travelers. After the community gained a post office in 1892, a member of the Tucker family was in charge for much of the next century.

In 1916, Lizzie Tucker got the job, taking over from her husband, Drew. In 1932, the mantel passed to their daughter-in-law Juanita, who stayed on the job for more than 40 years. Juanita Tucker was 101 when she died in 2008, then the oldest resident of Christmas and the one who had done the most to put it on the map.

Juanita Tucker at the Christmas, Florida, post office in the 1940s. (Florida State Archives)

Juanita Tucker at the Christmas, Florida, post office in the 1940s. (Florida State Archives)

“She got the community together. She was good at that,” her son Cecil A. Tucker II said after her death. “Anytime that people had a need, she would find some way or someone to help out.”

The old Christmas post office (the same building shown in the picture of Juanita Tucker at the window).

The old Christmas post office (the same building shown in the picture of Juanita Tucker at the window).

“The post office was always the one place people could count on to get information and help,” Juanita Tucker once said. “That’s what made it such a wonderful job. There were so many ways I was able to help people that had nothing to do with the post-office business.”

About 1937, the Tuckers moved postal headquarters to a one-story white-frame building with a small porch. When the highway through Christmas was widened to four lanes, that 1937 post office was moved from the south side of the road to the north side, where it still resides in a peace garden at Colonial Drive (S.R. 50) and Fort Christmas Road.

A mosaic at the peace garden in Christmas, Florida.

A mosaic at the peace garden in Christmas, Florida. It’s on State Road 50, about 20 miles east of Orlando.

Asked what he would most like folks to know about the community of Christmas, Cecil Tucker didn’t mention his family, often called “legendary” in Florida ranching lore. In a state where people consider themselves old-timers if they’ve been here since 1960, the Tuckers have a hundred years on them.

For him, his family’s legacy is all about the spirit of Christmas, in both global and local aspects.

“This community has a spirit of helping each other,” Tucker said. “If any place has the Christmas spirit, this is it.”

Christmas, and the Fort Christmas Historical Museum, is 20 miles east of Orlando, en route to Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Canaveral National Seashore in Titusville. See http://www.nbbd.com/godo/FortChristmas/

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It’s time for bluegrass and barbecue in old Christmas

Bluegrass fills the air at Cracker Christmas

Bluegrass fills the air at Cracker Christmas

For many Central Floridians, December wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Cracker Christmas at Fort Christmas Historical Park in far-east Orange County. This two-day celebration of Florida pioneer life traditionally takes place the first weekend of the month (in 2013, that’s Dec. 7 and 8).

In search of seasonal feature stories, journalists from near and far often join the crowds at the annual festival, which typically draws more than 15,000 folks each year.

Named by Seminole-fighting soldiers on Dec. 25 in 1837, the community of Christmas, Florida, is about as venerable as it gets in the state’s pioneer past. The park itself, given to the county in 1931, is also one of Orange’s oldest.

CrackerChristmasFlier-2During one festival a few years ago, visitors listened to bluegrass tunes, took cards to the Christmas postal booth to be stamped with the town’s famous postmark, bought books by authors including Florida Artists Hall of Famer Patrick Smith, and consumed copious quantities of barbecue, fried potatoes, and roasted corn. They could also get a taste of life on the Florida frontier at the replica of the 1837 fort or the park’s original Cracker houses, where vendors and volunteers demonstrated old-time crafts.

Joe Gallelli of Geneva gets a `boondoggle' lesson from Aimee Nichols of St. Augustine at a Cracker Christmas festival.

Joe Gallelli of Geneva gets a `boondoggle’ lesson from Aimee Nichols of St. Augustine at a Cracker Christmas festival.

At a display near the Cracker cabins, Aimee Nichols of St. Augustine sat with a sizable sabal palm frond in her lap, weaving it into a “boondoggle” — a decoration she said was often used to welcome newcomers to a community in the pioneer South and served as a Christmas gift.

Neighbors would come to the cabin of a newly arrived family with a fresh-baked pie and the palm decoration, which the family hung on their front door so “others would know they had been welcomed,” Nichols said.

Elsewhere in the park, fans of a showpiece of 20th-century American design — the Airstream travel trailer — helped keep the event rolling smoothly.

airstream1If the silvery trailers’ aerodynamic design at first seemed incongruous at an event that celebrates the antique and roughhewn, the travel trailers do have a link to old Christmas in the pioneer spirit they embody — a mixture of adventurous exploration and lending a hand.

“Don’t stop. Keep right on going,” Airstream’s founder Wally Byam once wrote. “Go see what’s over the next hill, and the one after that, and the one after that.”

For details on Cracker Christmas, visit http://www.nbbd.com/godo/FortChristmas/ and go to events.