My favorite day of the year will always be December 23rd.
I spent my childhood in full anticipation of our family’s annual Christmas party. The event was held at a small
Seminole Village of thatched chickee huts on what used to be the outskirts of town. East Naples was considered the boonies back in 1960, when my grandfather, Cory Osceola, first moved the family from Ochopee.
Hurricane Donna had destroyed their village and the farms they worked had flooded, so in his usual fashion, Grandpa developed a plan to support his family and moved them to East Naples. The “Cory Osceola Seminole Indian Village” became a local tourist attraction and was open to curious tourists who wanted to see our alligators, bobcats and gopher tortoises.
Visitors also wanted to see “Indians” in their “native habitat.” It wasn’t uncommon for a tourist to stop my cousins and I, while we were playing, just so they could take our picture. Once a year, however, the village would close for a few days and we would prepare for the annual Christmas party.
My father, uncles and grandfather would go behind the village and out into the woods to find a suitable young pine tree to harvest. The tree would be carefully placed in the middle of a clearing between all the chickees. Normally, this clearing was our field for kickball, tag football, baseball or whatever sport us kids would be playing that day. But this time of year, we gladly moved out of the way for the tree.
A few days before the party, my dad would wake us up super early in the morning. It was usually still dark, and we would meet our cousins at the village, load ourselves into the trucks and head to Tice, a small town east of Ft. Myers. An old friend of my grandfather, Mr. Dyess owned a citrus grove where we would go pick fruit to give away at our party.
Mr. Dyess would get in his old pickup truck and tell my dad and uncles not to get lost and follow closely. He would show us an area of orange and grapefruit trees and tell us to pick what we wanted. He would also look at us kids
and tell us not to play around or we could get hurt.. We would fill the trucks to the brim with fresh fruit! It was so exciting!
Once we returned to the village, we would unload the fruit and pile it around the Christmas tree. We would then go buy day old bread at the local Holsum Bakery and if we were lucky that year, we would have enough money to throw in some sweet rolls! The yummy cinnamon wheels were my favorite!
The morning of the 23rd was more exciting for me than Christmas Day. I know that Santa Claus came on Christmas, but the 23rd brought my friends and family together and I treasured that a lot more than the latest Barbie. I would get up early, get dressed in my regular clothes and jump in the truck with my dad to go help get ready for the party.
If I close my eyes, I can still smell the billowing smoke from the ribs and chicken smoking under one of the chickees, as well as the roasted corn sofkee and other food cooking under my Grandma’s sacred domain… her cooking chickee. We would help organize the fruit and bread around the tree, pick up any broken branches, and put out tables and chairs.
By lunchtime, my mom would pick my brother and I up and take us home to shower and get in our holiday clothes. We would hurry back and join our cousins on our favorite log and wait for the other kids to walk through the front gate of the village.
Hundreds of people would make the trip to our village for our Christmas party. Trays of food would cover at least a twenty foot serving line. I could not wait until I was old enough to help serve food. It seems like I was always too short or in the way and would get shooed away for getting under foot. I used to get mad and my feelings would be hurt for about a second or two, until I remembered that there were a ton of friends to play with or talk to.
This excitement continued until I was in college. Although my grandpa passed away in 1978, we kept the party going. My grandma passed away in 1987 when I was a sophomore at Rollins College in Winter Park. By then, the village was surrounded by housing developments. Eventually, the village sold and my dad and his siblings tried to keep the tradition going, but it was never the same. The holidays took on a different life for me, but deep down inside, I still get butterflies at the anticipation of December 23rd.
Now, I close my eyes, and remember what used to be. I can smell the fires cooking food, the smoke as it rose from the chickees, I can hear the laughter and voices as everyone scurried around making preparations. Mostly, I can still hear the deep voice of my Grandma as she made sure everything was in place. I look forward to those few minutes that I take on December 23rd, to visit my memories.
Happy Holidays, my friends!