Christmas in Florida
Christmas in Florida can be celebrated in many ways, just as Christmas in other places. We are showing some of the ways here. Each off the trails event adds a dimension to the holiday to make it even more enjoyable and diverse.
Lake Helen 13th Biennial Christmas Home Tour
Welcome to the Home Tour! Do you like history, architecture, antiques or good food? This tour has them all. Seven homes, five churches, a theater, a community center, and the Lake Helen Museum are stops on the tour. All but three sights are within walking distance for most, but free transport is available if some of the sites are too far. Lake Helen is a tiny city of about 2,800 residents in Central Florida. In the 1880s it became a winter playground for wealthy Northerners. The dream of Henry DeLand, the city was named after DeLand’s daughter, Helen. At one time, it had two hotels, the railroad, and several industries. Fires and freezes put an end to the boom times. Today Lake Helen is a quiet and charming community with residents who are proud of their community. The Home Tour is a result of this pride.
Hopkins Hall is the first stop. It was the town’s first library and community center, designed by John Mace, who served as the first mayor. It has been restored and is used now for weddings and other social functions. During the tour, refreshments are served, handmade quilts are on display, and local talent is featured. Hopkins Hall has beautiful pine floors and tall windows.
The second stop and first home was 210 West Connecticut, currently being renovated. Some of the interesting antique features are window shutters from an Egyptian church; an antique bar top; and antique columns found in a barn in Missouri.
Other homes showcase antiques, often family heirlooms, such as quilts and photographs. Beautiful wood floors, paneling, stained glass, ornate fireplaces, and original woodwork add to the charm and history of the 19th century homes. Bathrooms featured claw foot tubs, bead board, and octagonal tiles. Owners and volunteers led tours and gave histories.
The five churches included Baptist, Methodist, First Congregational and AME. Mt. Zion Baptist is the oldest church in Lake Helen, built in 1882. Mt. Olive calls itself “the little church with the big heart.” United Methodist Church had a lovely display of Nativity sets. The historian at Blake Memorial Baptist Church told us much about the history and showed us a bible from 1773! First Congregational UCC was designed by John Mace. All the churches were beautiful in their own way!
The Shoestring Theater building was once a black school. A former pupil and teacher told stories about her days there. We went backstage to see costumes, the prop room, and kitchen. The Theater performs six plays a year, including a summer theater for students.
The Lake Helen Museum was once the school. Now it is home to the City Council as well as the museum. Housed in a former classroom, with the original tin panel ceiling, the museum has clothing, photographs, tools, furniture, and toys from Lake Helen and its close neighbor, Cassadaga, the home of many spiritualists. The museum’s slogan is”Where Mayberry meets the Twilight Zone.”
Food is sold at Mt. Olive AME and First Congregational UCC on the tour. The theater offered cider. In addition, there are several restaurants in town: Creative Arts Café, Papa’s Pizza and Lake Helen Coffee and Tea Company. We ate at both Creative Arts Café and Lake Helen Coffee and Tea Company and the food was delicious and reasonable. The Café has a funky décor. We had prime rib and roast beef dinners for a total of $29. The Coffee Company served us drinks, tomato bisque soup, a salad, and a Cuban for $18.
The $15 tour tickets bought us an afternoon of fun, education and exercise. We find Lake Helen to be charming and picturesque, and its citizens to be friendly, helpful, and civic minded. The next tour is in 2011. Other homes will be shown then. We’ll be there! http://lakehelen.com/
Celebrating a Cracker Christmas at Ft. Christmas, Fl
This a family friendly celebration held on the grounds of Ft. Christmas in central Florida. Christmas, Fl is just east of Orlando. The fort was begun on Christmas Day in 1837 during the Seminole Wars and finished in just two days. What is a Cracker? Cracker refers to the early Florida cowboys who cracked their whip while herding. Cracker culture encompasses food, architecture, music, and a way of life.
The Cracker Christmas is held in early December. Living history demonstrations are all over the original buildings and grounds. Broom making, meat smoking techniques, rope making, spinning, lace making, and corn husk dolls are some of the pioneer crafts we were able to watch. A Civil War encampment displayed life for the Confederate soldiers. Other living historians exhibited trapper life and Indian life. Volunteers in period costume showed the homes, built in the 1800s and early 1900’s. It’s amazing to realize that small two bedroom homes held families of eight or more! One little house, built in 1905, was lived in until 1950, without electricity or indoor plumbing! The early Florida pioneers were certainly a hardy, resilient, and creative people! Large porches, detached kitchens and breezeways are hallmarks of the Cracker home. The kitchen often had fires, since the stove or fireplaces were wood burning. Keeping it separate from the house kept the house from catching fire. The house also stayed cooler in the summer.
The fort is open for tours. The blockhouses have been converted into museums showing fort life, Seminole life, and pioneer, or Cracker life in the mid 1800s. The storeroom and powder magazine look like they might have back then. We had some hand churned butter in the fort. You can’t find anything that good in the store!
Community organizations, such as Boy Scouts and FFA, support the event by selling food and having exhibits and demonstrations. We sampled the gator tail, steak on a stick, walking taco, and homemade ice cream. Everything was delicious! What is a walking taco, we wanted to know! Add taco filling to a bag of tortilla chips that have been crushed and eat with a spoon. There was also chicken, BBQ pork, sugar cane, hot dogs, and baked goods.
Shopping? Fountains made from recycled items, jewelry, books about Florida, plants, toys, T shirts, leather goods, baskets, brooms, quilts, and so much more. About 150 vendors were there.
There was music entertainment, too! Old time music with mandolins, banjos, and harmonicas!
Christmas isn’t Christmas without Santa. He was here for the kids in the early afternoon, on the porch of the old school. He had a real beard!
What’s the cost for all the entertainment? Free! Food ranged in price from $1 to $5. We had a grand time! There are other events throughout the year, and the fort is open all year. http://www.nbbd.com/godo/FortChristmas
Walk Through Bethlehem
Walk Through Bethlehem is a trip in time back to the town of Bethlehem about 2000 years ago. Put on by the first Baptist Church of Longwood, it’s a living history tour. Longwood is east of Orlando on S. R. 434.
We were met by Jeremiah, our guide, who escorted us through the gate, past the Roman soldier, and gave us coins to pay our taxes. He explained the life Jewish people lived 2000 years ago under Roman rule. We met the apothecary, basket makers, carpenter, fruit vendors, fish monger, and many other townspeople. The rabbi greeted us at the temple. Each explained his or her role in the community. Did you know that olive oil was considered good for the skin? Or that the apothecary had cures for baldness? We entered a family home and a crowded inn. We kept hearing rumors about a baby born in a stable. Jeremiah led us to the outskirts of town, where we met sheppards who directed us to the stable. The little family of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus was there. On the way out of town, we met three kings with their gifts. The tour is complete with the meeting of the resurrected Christ and a prayer from the new guide, James. It was a remarkable journey through time. Religious, yes, but very educational and fascinating, too.
About 140 people are involved in the production. It takes about two and a half months to build. The tour takes about 45 minutes. Admission is free. http://fbclongwood.org/
The Defuniak Springs “Christmas Festival of Trees”
Defuniak Springs is another of Florida’s charming small historic towns. Built around Defuniak Lake, many of the original homes have the appearance of antebellum mansions. There is a historic walking tour of 39 sites, including the library, Chautauqua building, churches, depot and many houses. Homes range from 1882 through 1940. They are seen from the outside only. There are some interesting shops, including antiques and book stores. One of our favorites is the Little Big Shop, stocked full of items like old fashioned candy; cast iron cookware; cheese grits; hurricane lanterns; and homemade jams. The old depot museum, Walton County Heritage Museum, is worth the stop. Carol, the hostess, clearly loves the town and is a wealth of information. Surrounding the lake was a light display of 4,000,000 to 5,000,000 lights put up by the community as part of the Tour of Homes and Chautauqua’s “Festival of Trees”! It was spectacular! Cars pay $3 per person to drive through, but walking the 1.35 miles is free. The Chipola River Book and Tea manager in Marianna had recommended it; she was right on target. http://defuniaksprings.net/