Christmas in Christmas

Monday, Nov. 17

Excuse me. Do you know if Santa Claus is going to be here today?"

It's just before 11 a.m. at the U.S. Post Office in Christmas, Fla., and I'm inquiring into the whereabouts of the man whose jelly-bellied merriment holds the key to the entire season. Just yesterday, there was a flier in the window of this celebrated postal depot inviting us to start our holidays on the right foot by coming out to meet ... the good folks from Local 6, WKMG-TV.

"And Santa!" a hand-scrawled amendment had clarified.

Less than 24 hours later, the flier is gone, and I'm starting to wonder if this golden opportunity is about to pass me by. There's no sign of St. Nick, and a crowd has failed to gather. The only activity lies in watching a handful of locals dart in and out to retrieve mail from their P.O. boxes. One fellow sports a close-cropped white beard that makes him look a tad like Ernest Hemingway. We nod at each other in silent greeting.

The postal worker on duty puts my mind at ease. Santa will be here, all right, she says. Even better, he may even be bringing a friend.

Rudolph? Frosty? Scott Peterson? Nope.

"A Confederate soldier on a horse!" she beams, as if the prospect should be simply thrilling to any right-minded individual. I tentatively suggest that it's an odd pairing. Why a Confederate soldier?

"Because that's when they won it," she patiently explains -- an answer that only begins to make any sense if you have a smidgen of knowledge of the town's lore. Just up the road and north apiece rests a replica of Fort Christmas, the wooden structure that our armed forces (and a cadre of Alabama volunteers) built in 1837 as a supply depot for the ongoing Second Seminole Indian War. The construction project was begun on Christmas Day and completed on Dec. 27; hence the name "Fort Christmas," and thus the moniker of the sleepy little unincorporated community that has grown up (after a fashion) around it. Except that my enthusiastic postal pal seems to think the whole megillah was instead named after some sort of battle that occurred on a long-ago Yuletide morn -- perhaps the Battle of Okeechobee, which also took place on Christmas Day, 1837 (albeit a good 90 miles or so south).

After a few moments of polite disagreement, we determine that the confusion lies with a one-page history she's been given to distribute. It describes Christmas as the date that our men in uniform "occupied" the fort -- a term we both acknowledge as potentially misleading. Of course, that doesn't explain why a Confederate soldier should in any way represent a military action that took place in the 1830s. The farther you get from Orange Avenue, I assume, the more pervasive the belief that Johnny Reb is an iconic figure relevant to any and all historical scenarios -- like the Boston Tea Party, the Charge of the Light Brigade or even (shudder!) the Nativity.

This post office, though small, is a hugely important place, where thousands pf playful well-wishers from across the country bring their holiday mail every year, just to have it postmarked "Christmas, FL." Yes, it's one of the few post offices in America where Santa's list is as important as the FBI's. Hand stampers are also available for the personal touch. Beyond the generic "Christmas, Florida," other designs offered include "May Your Birthday Be a Blessing" and "Earth is Boot Camp for Heaven!"

On a nearby bulletin board, somebody has posted an Orlando Sentinel article from last year. It's a profile of Jack James, the intrepid area resident who answers all of the Santa mail that this post office receives every Christmas. In 2002, the article states, James was 78 years old, yet he and his wife still make time to respond to the fervent missives of children from across the U.S. and around the globe. Anything addressed to Santa that comes into a Central Florida post office gets forwarded to James, the article reveals.

God bless the daily. They live for this shit.

Channel 6 is now in the house, in the persona of reporter Candice Coleman (in town two and a half years; volunteers that she loves Orlando Weekly; obviously hasn't received the interoffice memo). She's going to be shooting some scenes for the evening's newscast and a holiday special to be broadcast later. For the occasion, Coleman is wearing black thigh-high boots, a grey skirt and a black turtleneck, the latter festooned with a spider-shaped brooch. Whatever Christmas she's celebrating is one of which Tim Burton would wholeheartedly approve.

Coleman's cameraman, Eddie Diaz, drops a bombshell: Santa was already on the grounds for the briefest of moments, but had to go home because he forgot his hat. As it turns out, the Papa Hemingway look-alike was Jack Jones himself. To think I was so close to Santa and didn't know it. I hope I was behaving myself.

Nothing in Christmas is that far from anything else, so James is back in a relative jiffy. He has his hat, but his "costume" is limited to a Hawaiian-print shirt that Diaz has been coaxed into donating -- all the better to play up the "Floridian Santa" angle Local 6 is going for. The lack of horsey footfalls indicates that Robert E. Lee has not made it after all. He isn't missed.

The two-person TV crew shoots a few scenes of Santa/James going to his P.O. box and picking up mail from good children. Or at least children who say they've been good. And let's not forget the children who don't care how they've been and want to get straight to enumerating their wants.

James takes a seat to pore through the letters; Coleman looks over his shoulder to kibbitz. She's enthusing like a maniac, throwing out prompt after prompt. Who's on the "nice" list?, she wonders aloud. Who's on the "naughty" roster? But James proves slow to play along, answering most questions quietly, thoughtfully and as himself -- not in character, as Coleman obviously wants. I wonder how the station is going to cobble together usable footage.

At least we learn some fun factoids about the annual wish-list deluge. Last year, James says, he handled 2,201 letters. (He responded to each with a form card reading "Lots of love, Santa.") The Kringle-pestering mail drop actually begins in February, but not with a reaffirming round of thank-you notes. Early-bird correspondents are either getting their next lists in to beat the rush, or browbeating a Santa who "forgot to get me such-and-such." The nerve. The nerve.

James picks out some sample dispatches to read. "I'm writing this letter for my sister," announces a girl named Pamela. "Last year, when our mother died ..."

"I'm not going to read that," James dismisses. (He means, "on the air.") He selects a substitute letter, one from a boy named Michael.

"This Christmas, it's going to be hard for my dad to get what I want," the miniature essay begins.

"I'm not going to read that one, either."

You don't have to be Kreskin to notice that an atmosphere of gloom has seeped into the room. One kid requests "an Airedale, a whip ... and for my Dad to get better." Hey, that was almost Michael Jackson's list, before it got all serious.

Sunday, Nov. 30

I'm five minutes late for morning services at the Fort Christmas Baptist Church, and there's every reason to worry that the door is going to be locked. Or, worse, I might be greeted by a phalanx of Southern Baptists with their arms folded, shooting me eye-bombs of eternal condemnation.

Paul Pradia, 4, gets the drop on a Confederate solider

Why church? Because Christmas, as Linus van Pelt will tell you, is still a religious holiday at heart, and I want to see how theological rituals are observed in the community that bears its name. But the whole agenda is going to collapse like a house of cards if the gates of heaven stay sealed up tight. On the car trip over, O-Rock 105.9 was pumping Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." Maybe the Baptists will count it as a processional hymn.

When I get to the church, all my fears prove unfounded. (Well, a lot of them, anyway.) Pastor Delbert Redditt, an irrepressibly genial guy who strongly resembles Dr. Phil, bum-rushes the center aisle to let me know he's "thrilled to death" I'm there. Point to the Baptists: When was the last time you were "thrilled to death" about anything?

It's immediately apparent that the church's brand of worship is markedly different from the show-pony Protestantism under which a lot of us were raised. The building itself is a small wooden edifice, with parking on the lawn and a humble piano substituting for an organ. The accompanist pumps the keys hard -- almost hard enough to kill the bum notes that compete for airspace with the untrained sonorities of the 10-person choir. The brothers and sisters of the congregation clearly know each other well, nodding in informed assent as individual speakers give thanks for small blessings they've recently enjoyed (lost dogs recovered) and larger ones they're now experiencing (cancers in remission).

The Christmas spirit is in full effect: Though the decorations are exceedingly Spartan, Pastor Redditt lauds the great job the decorating committee has done. I think of Dickens' Cratchits, who felt the full measure of gratitude for their meager holiday feast. I then stop myself before I choke to death on liberal sanctimony.

Some children come forth for the morning youth sermon. It's about forgiveness, and the gist of it that God will absolve you for cussin' if you just ask him. The lesson ultimately degenerates into a debate about who should pick up your clothes at night -- you or your mom? A quorum is barely achieved.

A female member of the congregation then steps up to inform us of difficulties with the church's Lottie Moon missionary program, which seeks to spread the word of Jesus throughout the Muslim world. A brochure I find in my pew laments the situation in Assam, India, where "remnants of Hinduism and tribal superstition persist." The woman cries real tears as she enumerates the challenges the underperforming program will continue to face in the months ahead. Apparently, the first half of Ann Coulter's famous doctrine -- "Kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" -- is easier to bring about than the second.

Another sister discusses the church's internal Christmas-card system, which allows congregants to "send" each other mail by depositing it in handy slots. It'll be up and running next Sunday, she says. And it will enable us to avoid giving any of our money (via postal fees) to the U.S. government, which "has more than enough money already."

That should be the cue for a militia meeting to break out, but any fears of a populist uprising are leavened by Pastor Redditt's continually disarming presence. He gives two older boys their first Bibles, advising them that the good book is the bread of life. "So eat regularly," he kids. He makes cracks about the odd aerodynamics being exhibited that morning by what's left of his hair. And when he goes about the business of "dedicating" a baby (full-on baptism comes later in this faith), he can't help remarking that the tyke has "left a deposit" in her undies. That's right, people: It's all about giving.

In his sermon proper, Redditt -- who, I later learn, is a high-school agriculture teacher and University of Florida grad -- shows a healthy progressive streak. He begins with a discussion of addiction, which he says springs from doing things to "excess." A spiritual dilettante might misconstrue this as the OK to pursue almost any bad habit in moderation, so of course that's exactly how I choose to take it. One thing is certain: It's the only time I've ever heard a man of the cloth make reference to High Times magazine.

When he gets to the meat of his message, it becomes harder to separate Pastor Redditt's ideology from something, well, Michael Moore might say. He debunks the concept of the "self-made man" (a myth beloved by the neocons), and risks rankling a few good-old-boy types with this idol-denuding observation: "John Wayne made the movies, but Marion Morrison went home at night." Revving up into righteous indignation, he wonders why we Americans are blessed almost beyond precedent, yet still complain that our material rewards are never good enough.

I chalk it all up as a moral victory for Doctor Phil -- and Bob Cratchit.

Sunday, Dec. 7

Gone are the days when "cracker" was merely something Richard Pryor called Chevy Chase. At this late stage, the term encompasses an entire school of socio-history, in which the ways of the Florida pioneers are examined from a respectful standpoint that's perfectly acceptable to unreconstructed sons of Dixie and culturally sensitive intellectuals alike.

What a way to ruin a perfectly good slur.

It's the second and final day of the "Cracker Christmas" festival at the Fort Christmas Historical Park -- one of the most important events on the Christmas social calendar. Amid the fort's usual exhibits of pioneer lifestyles, temporary booths are set up to vend handcrafted gifts, homemade foods and other presents of the sort that Jimmy Kimmel hates to receive. (As he points out, they're so hard to return for cash.) But there's a good deal more end-of-year altruism going on here than at the average mall, with a woodcarver's booth bearing the legend "proceeds go to hospice" and a raffle set up to benefit the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Some of the vendors, I notice, are charging tax. So much for that theory about the government having more than enough money.

In the preceding week, I've learned that Confederate sympathy is actually a thorny issue in Christmas, and its inclusion in the community's public celebrations is a fairly recent development. Some members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896 (Titusville) are on hand for Cracker Christmas, dressed in military regalia and presiding over a makeshift camp stocked with authentic-looking rifles. As they school some young kids in the procedural truths of the War Between the States, their lesson appears relievedly free of inflammatory terms like "Yankee aggression." I bail early, figuring there's no sense in pressing my luck.

Still, I'm saddened by the relative scarcity of gifts that combine holiday and hickish themes. One notable exception is a display of "redneck wind chimes": beer and soda cans on a string. Another is a T-shirt transfer that depicts the "Three Wise Men," namely Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Forrest. The woman hawking this item finds the joke so clever that she repeats it three times, lest its meaning elude me. It's definitely the wrong time to point out that one of the three wise men was a black guy. So I don't.

In a viewing area, a group of kids from Orlando's Talako Indian Dancers Family Club perform an entertaining and educational showcase of Native American steps. The group has arrived in its own trailer with airbrushed Indian art on the side. One of the boys, Flaming Arrow (aka "Josh Channel"), does the Talako Eagle Dance, his brightly colored feathers flying proudly in the air. The youngest girl, an 8-year-old known as Falling Star, is already a veteran of more than 100 dances. Nobody is named Screaming Tantrum or Pain in the Ass.

(Hours later, I run into a friend of Choctaw/Cherokee descent. He confirms that the group has not one Native American member, and that their routines are inauthentic. But he approves of the undertaking anyway, because it keeps the kids out of trouble.)

A crowd has gathered for a cooking demonstration that shows how the crackers of long ago made cane syrup. Three men watch over a huge vat, stirring up an aroma that's only vaguely analogous to what we now know as syrup. At the front of the line is a spectator in a customized Harley-Davidson jacket. A patch on its lower back reads, "Smart-Ass White Boy."

Some minutes later, a corpulent little girl and her father walk by. They are debating the role of pirates in the area's history.

Next stop: a job at the post office.

Sunday, Dec. 7 (evening)

Sundown brings the 51st annual lighting of the community's Permanent Christmas Tree. Located on the northern side of State Road 50, it stays up all year as a reminder of the locality's festive spirit. About 21 feet tall, it's festooned with lights, oversized candy canes and crimson cutouts that read "Joy." That's a long way from its modest origins half a century ago, when it was supposedly decorated with aluminum pie pans. (There have actually been several "permanent" trees in the town's history; the current one was donated in 1997 by Walt Disney World. Had I known this in advance, I would have spent more time looking for the hidden Mickeys.)

Folding chairs are set up for a ceremony that includes the participation of three area churches -- Fort Christmas Baptist, Pine Grove Missionary Baptist and the Christmas Church of God. Pastor Redditt is there, but his brief comments are plagued by some sort of throat disorder. When the tree is lit, it's a far more affecting sight than what a particularly cynical local had told me to expect. ("They just throw a switch.")

Willard Redditt and his smoked sausage

A flu bug has prevented the First Christmas Baptist Choir from performing, though a soloist named Tracy impresses with strong, clear tones. (Where was she last Sunday?) Vocalists from the other two churches join in with holiday hymns, backed up by a keyboardist who dishes out swirly preset sounds. Pine Grove's Pastor Mark Clark and Christmas Church of God's Pastor E.L. Green contribute scriptural passages.

One of the men from Fort Christmas Baptist -- the same one who had only a week ago praised the return of his dog -- closes the evening by singing a duet with his wife. He thanks his son, Cecil, for the keyboard backing. Friends, he admits, have pointed out that he forgets to do this every year.

After the ceremony, Pastor Redditt catches my eye. I inquire after his health.

"I feel like Lurch from 'The Addams Family,'" he says. He smiles weakly.

Sunday, Dec. 7 (once more, with feeling)

Dan (no last name), one of the friendly locals at Pat's Place

Flash back a few hours to the late afternoon. I'm seated at the bar at Pat's Place, a swell dive bar located a few feet west of the Christmas Grocery. It's set back far from the road -- drive by too fast and you just might miss it. A barbecue pit smolders outside, next to a trailer cage full of empty beer cans awaiting removal.

Inside, Christmas lights ring the perimeter of the bar. Four stockings are hung by the potato-chip display with care, next to a sign announcing a change in policy: Beginning Jan. 1, 2004, all phone calls will incur a charge of 50 cents.

"No more drug calls will be tolerated!" the sign goes on to warn. "This is a business, not your home!"

Like the congregation at Fort Christmas Baptist, the smattering of Sunday-afternoon patrons all seem to know each other. They exchange a brief few words of regret about someone else's boy, who's back on crack again. We all agree that this is a terrible thing. I order another beer.

The guy to my left says that the bar has been in business for 40 years in one form or another. And that's roughly as long as he's been in the area. He tells a long, entertaining story about the time he backed up the former owner in an armed standoff against 250 angry bikers. (The actual number, I suspect, was slightly less.)

The bartender has four kids, all high school-age. She also has partial custody of her grandnephew, whom she started taking care of when his negligent mother abandoned him. She's currently working three days a week, making $20 per eight-hour shift. Offers have come in from establishments outside town, but she's chosen to stick with Pat's. It's close to her house, and she likes her customers.

The storytelling guy has been joined by a friend -- a dark-haired fellow who says he majored in music at the University of Miami and once lived in Munich teaching English as a second language. During a brief lull in the conversation, he tries to float his own anecdote about something or other.

"Get to the damn point," his buddy -- a far more experienced raconteur -- advises.

"That was the point, Bobby," he whimpers, defeated. Whatever it was, it's gone.

This place is great, I offer. I just can't believe nobody's told me about it before now. On my first day of researching the area, I had asked a woman at the Fort Christmas gift shop if there were any restaurants or bars in town. And she had distinctly said no.

The bartender rolls her eyes. Not everybody approves of Pat's, she says. But to her, it's a nice establishment -- kind of a Christmas Cheers, where everybody knows everybody else by name. And where they all help each other get through whatever troubles life chooses to throw their way.

"Right, guys?"

There's assent all around. But the barkeep chooses to clarify her remarks.

"We can't always help," she says. "But we try to."

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