It was hot enough to burn the dead lovebugs on my car's hood. Farmland and pine trees were on the horizon, streets named after eight reindeer and brown wreaths hung on mailboxes. It’s not a holiday for the people of Christmas, Florida.
Christmas sits between Orlando and Cape Canaveral. The yuletide name of the community comes from the Second Seminole War. On December 25th, 1837, more than 2,000 US soldiers built a supply fort for the war. They never saw a day of battle. The place today seems like an outpost vibrating with its pioneer past.
Highway 50 runs straight into Country Craft 'n Christmas. This year-round holiday store looks like a winter cottage airdropped into Florida-cracker land.
“First thing that I do in the morning, change out the numbers,” Becky Hamilton said.
Hamilton opened her doors in 2001, as owner and operator, always wanting to own a X-mas gift store.
Hamilton is more than just a business owner in Christmas, she is part of the historical association. She handed me some pamphlets for the Fort Christmas Museum.
“Why do I keep seeing the same last names popping up everywhere?” I asked.
“The town started with 21 pioneer families,” she said. “There are still descendants living in the community today.”
She then made a comment under her breath about cousins marrying through the years. As I left, she gave me a baseball-shaped gingerbread cookie and an "I Love My Cat/Christmas, Florida" nail file for my wife.
Up a couple blocks from Hamilton’s store is the Christmas Post Office. People come from all over to this post office to get their Christmas, Florida, postmark for their holiday mail.
The post office employee seemed caught off guard when I walked through her door.
“Do you get a lot of people during the holidays?” I asked.
She told me that there are lines out the door, so long that they run all the way around the side of the building.
I asked her about this mailbox which read: "LETTERS TO SANTA."
“Where do those letters go to?”
“They used to go to this 90-year-old man that lived here. But he isn’t allowed to do it anymore.”
“Was Santa naughty?” I asked.
“Oh no, no,” she said.
She told me that “hundreds of letters” are now answered by local plant workers who volunteer their time.
Heading farther east, I ended up at Fort Christmas Historical Park. The grounds looked like a set from Deadwood. There were seven restored historical homes and a full size replica of Fort Christmas itself.
At the footsteps of a historical schoolhouse stood an elderly woman named Shirley Truex. She lectured me on the schoolhouse’s history.
Shirley said she had grown up going to the schoolhouse that this one was built to resemble. She even could tell me where exactly in the room she sat.
“Was that paddle used when you went here?” I asked.
“Hunny, I was a good girl,” she said. “The boys were the troublemakers. That’s what we call the Board of Education.”
A portrait of Robert E. Lee hung on the wall near the entrance. We made our way to the next building that housed the cafeteria and kitchen.
She pointed at an old portrait of all the lunchroom ladies. One of them was her grandmother.
We went to another pioneer house, one that was from the 1940s. This creepy doll, which Shirley had donated, lay in the crib.
We walked toward the fort. It was an intimidating structure, even by modern standards. Inside glass cases stood mannequins dressed in Native American and pioneer garb. Shirley pointed out more family members.
“It’s like you have your own museum,” I said.
“You know I never thought of it that way,” she said, “but I guess you’re right.”
“Is your husband from Christmas?” I asked.
“Oh, no.” she said. “He is from New Jersey. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t marrying a cousin.”
After the fort, I headed over to the Brooks Brothers Alligator Farm. The land that the farm sits on is filled with gray igloos that house gators of all shapes and sizes.
I met Hoho Brooks, one of the owners. Yes, Hoho, that is not a typo. “Let me show you the small ones, first,” Brooks said. “We keep all water at a specific temperature, so they are comfortable and grow.”
He opened the pit door. The floor was crawling with tiny gators. They started to climb to one side as if they knew the drill.
I could taste the stench. It stayed with me into the evening time. The reek covered me like an invisible cloak of gator waste. I’m sure Hoho had his fair share of gator wrangling, but his teenage daughters were on the job. His daughters went into the pit with no fear and grabbed the gators by the tails.
“I taught them from an early age,” Hobo said.
The two girls worked in unison, an assembly line of gator wrangling. One of them joked about the other never having been bit, and she said her sister was next. The work ethic of these two girls was amazing. The way they approached the task of packing up gators was muscle memory, second nature.
Hoho took me to where they kept the hides and meat. He opened up the giant walk-in refrigerator. Blood stained the floor. There was torn-up meat in garbage cans and hides rolled up in bins.
“Mainly our hides are sold to a vendor in France,” he said. “They use them for handbags.”
“We don’t waste any part of the animal,” he said. “We sell the good meat to local seafood restaurants.”
Then he took me to another walk-in. Heads were on the floor, the size of a truck tires. This was where the big ones went to die.
“This is where we keep our nuisance gators,” he said. “Most of these are kept here for the taxidermist.”
Hoho said that most of these were gators that got too big in public places like golf courses. On a cooler, next to tubs of chicken livers, was a 12.5 footer rolled up like a scaly suit.
“How do you kill the gators, the ones in the pit?” I asked.
“The ethical way is with a .22 in the back of the head,” he said, “and then we cut near the spine to bleed them out.”
“This is done while other gators are in the pit with them?”
“Yeah, but there are so many regulations that we have to follow,” he said. “With the drainage and getting rid of the waste, it’s a whole process.”
Hoho and I shook hands. I drove out of town. The people I met in Christmas are part of the backbone of America, working hard for that dream in the distance.