The True Pioneer Christmas of Florida

 By Scott Mitchell 

A Christmas reenactment. Photo courtesy of Florida State Archives.

  Christmas is a very traditional holiday. It is a constant in our hectic calendars that arrives each season and often remains unchanged as the years tick by. While this may be true for the recent past, a little research into a “typical” pioneer Christmas yields surprises. We envision families dressed in their best clothes gathered around a tree with gifts or a large traditional holiday meal. The reality is that life was hard for pioneers and not all had those luxuries, or even celebrated Christmas. Our beloved Florida has been multicultural since the first Europeans arrived in 1513. Much like today, how and if you celebrated depended on your ethnicity and ancestors. Early Jewish settlers, such as Moses Levy, and Creek and Seminole/ Miccosukee people who lived traditional Native American lifestyles, as well as settlers of Scots Irish descent, likely did not celebrate Christmas at all. Many other groups of mostly European descent, however, observed Christmas as a major religious holiday. Upon settling in what is now Florida, each culture brought unique traditions with them. Pioneers of German descent are credited with introducing the Christmas tree, hanging stockings over the hearth, caroling for neighbors and Saint Nicholas. Early trees were small and sat atop tables decorated with homemade garlands. The English brought mistletoe, the concept of Father Christmas and the tradition of turkey or goose for dinner. Early Floridians of Spanish descent brought the tradition of the three kings, or wise men, and nativity scenes. In fact, the Christmas season in Spanish Florida would have extended to January 6th, when the three kings arrived to celebrate the birth of Christ. For African Americans still living in bondage before slavery was abolished, Christmas varied widely. Some got a break from harsh work during the holiday while others were subjected to cruel lockdowns over fears among owners of holiday uprisings. Up until the Civil War, some slaves celebrated Johnkankus, a tradition brought from West Africa at Christmas. This holiday is now mostly forgotten, with the exception of some areas of the Caribbean Although much has changed since Florida became a U.S. Territory in 1821, some things have stayed the same. Our state remains very diverse with a rich culture, some still struggle to make ends meet and, for many, Christmas is still centered on family coming together. As we enter this holiday season, let us remember that while Christmas has not always looked as it does today, celebrating with loved ones is as important as it has ever been.

Scott Mitchell is the director of the Silver River Museum & Environmental Education Center. He has worked as a field archaeologist, scientific illustrator and museum professional for the last 25 years. For more information, visit silverrivermuseum.com or call (352) 236-5401. 

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