By Jerry Wilkinson

- Prologue -
     Almost no written documentation exists describing Christmas Day celebrations in such early settlements as Indian Key, Newport, Rock Harbor, Planter, Tavernier and Matecumbe. We do know that most of the early settlers came from the Bahamas by way of Key West. These families were generally very private people who were here to escape the restrictions of a crowded society and/or restraining governments.

      Allow me as the author, a fourth generation Floridian, to tout a tidbit of Florida history. The question has been asked where America's first Christmas was celebrated. Historians generally agree that it was northwest of Tallahassee near the Indian village of Iviahica in the year 1539. This is 26 years before St. Augustine and 68 years before Jamestown.

      The trail to this Christmas began on the west coast of La Florida at Charlotte Harbor on May 31, 1539, by Spanish conquistador, Hernando de Soto, on his trek to fine gold. By December 1539 he and his small army reached the Tallahassee area where he set up his winter headquarters. There is little doubt that these Spanish Catholic citizens with their accompanying clergymen celebrated the Christmas Mass in the early tradition. In total truth the author cannot find it specifically recorded as he can the Pascua floridas for Easter Mass in 1513 near St. Augustine. 

      Now for the Florida Keys. Other than a few recorded ship captains giving their crews the day off, the first recorded Christmas event that the author has found was an entry made in Key West attorney William Hackley’s diary, dated December 25, 1830. Mr. Hackley recorded: “About 20 persons sat down to dinner at Mr. Pinkhams. The two Mrs. Wescotts, Mrs. Pinkham and Miss. Foote sat at the table. It is the first time I have eaten dinner in the company of ladies on this Key. Several of the party got a little merry, but not much so. There were persons parading the streets till a late hour firing guns, and whooping and hollering in honor of the day.”

      The arrival of Dr. Henry Perrine and his family on Indian Key on Christmas day, 1838 provides us with a brief dinner description. Quoting from Dr. Perrine’s daughter, Hester Perrine Walker, hand written memoirs: “. . . As soon as our vessel came to anchor Mr. [Charles] Howe came on board, and in his boat we landed. Our first Christmas dinner was eaten at his hospitable table. How well I remember the curious Conch soup, and that roast of beef!! Some years before Captain Houseman [sic] the owner of the Island had imported a cow and Bull, hoping to raise stock, for some reason the cow died , & he had determined to kill the Bull, but hearing that father was coming, determined to await his arrival, so that we should enjoy what was to be to them, such a great luxury! forgetting that we were from the land of beef. The task Mr. Howe had in cutting that roast, and our teeth had in masticating it, can better be imagined than told!! (If it was not one of the creatures turned out of the Ark, it must have been a near descendant!!) But the fresh vegetables & delicious fruits made amends. I cannot forget our delight on first seeing this beautiful little island of only 12 acres. . .."

 - Periods -
      The first Christmas period would be before any form of land transportation was available. There were few or no interconnecting trails or paths. Everything had to come by the few sailing vessels that happened to stop. This improved when scheduled sailing vessels, such as the Island Home, Mystery or Newport, could be relied on to bring in/out supplies, visitors, ministers, justices of the peace, mail, and so forth. In this era, families had to store large amounts of supplies, or take the chance of running short.

      The second period began with the announcement of scheduled train service to Knight's Key (Marathon) by the Flagler Overseas Railroad on February 4, 1908. A train departed Miami at 6:30 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. and would return from Knight's Key at 5:40 A.M. and 10:00 A.M. the following day. After completion of the railroad to Key West in 1912, daily train service was provided; however, if one wished to depart and return the same day, he or she would have to go to Key West to make same-day connections. If one went to Miami, he or she would have to remain overnight and return the next morning. This was the time period that the interviewees remembered as their earliest Christmas.

      The third period was not as large of a change, but it occurred in about 1928 when the first Overseas Highway was built using the wooden bridge over Card Sound to Homestead and Miami. The automobile had become a reliable mode of transportation and one could make one's own schedule. But, one would have to take ferryboats to drive to Key West, as the highway was not completed all the way. Miami also had grown much larger, and bus and delivery service were now available to and from the Keys.

      Reasonably sized grocery stores, hotels, taverns and drug stores gradually appeared throughout the Keys. Because the amount of stored supplies needed in each home diminished, the trade to Key West faded. 

     The fourth period began in 1935, when the hurricane decimated the interviewees' homes and businesses, and severely damaged the railroad. Shortly after, in 1938, the first complete Overseas Highway was opened to Key West ,and in many ways life today is similar to that period.

      Let's remember that specific Christmas details generally follow a family tradition and are affected by socio/economic aspects. There are some specifics that are geographically area sensitive, so expect some differences.

      For example, the church mentioned in the interviews was the Methodist Church. There were no Catholic or other churches in the Upper Keys at that time. Almost all children were born in Key West or Miami, so Catholics returning to the Upper Keys could not celebrate Christmas Mass or any other mass, short of going to Key West or Miami.  Another example is that before the exotic Australian pine was introduced, the Spanish, white and red stopper wood trees were used locally as Christmas trees. Decorations were of Conch ingenuity. Charles “Prof.” Albury told of searching the shoreline for clear light bulbs to be filled with water colored with berry dyes and hung on the tree as ornaments. Sea shells were another favorite. Holes were punched in sea shells and hung for decorations. 

- My Plan -
      My next step was to contact some of the "old timers" who were born and raised in the Upper Keys. Many were away for the Thanksgiving festivities, but Bernard Russell, Laurette Russell nee Pinder, Etta Sweeting nee Parker and William Albury were found at home. They consented to give up a part of their privacy for four interviews that will follow a short introduction.

      As most residents here know, contacting the Russells, Pinders, Parkers, Roberts and Alburys will give a relatively good cross section of early Upper Keys life. Admittedly, it would have been more comprehensive to have been able to locate all the various Alburys, Pinders, Parkers, Lowes, Johnsons, Bethels, Sweetings, Sawyers, Thompsons, Careys, Currys, Roberts, Russells, Saunders, Sands, etc. Perhaps some other time. Four different major periods of early Christmas appear to have evolved in the Upper Keys. 

      The following interviews were done in November, 1991 while researching Christmas in the Upper Keys. 

      The first person interviewed was Etta Sweeting nee Parker, the daughter of Edney Parker and Edna (Pinder) Parker of Upper Matecumbe Key. Etta was the fourth of eleven children and reminded me that Christmas, or any other day, was a busy day for her. Fortunately, her oldest sister, Janice, did most of the cooking, but there were plenty of chores for her in their Matecumbe home.

      Her Christmas and her life were centered around the church and 
family. She went to church four times on Sundays: morning worship, afternoon Sunday school, young peoples meeting and the evening service.

      The family meal was next in importance. Janice cooked the meal and her mother made the bread. It would probably be a chicken, but could be baked fish, a stuffed snapper, or bone fish prepared with bacon and onions. There would be vegetables that they grew, such as cabbages, tomatoes and collard greens. For dessert, they preferred a family bread-pudding recipe to the queen-of-all pudding and guava or date duff. [See recipes at the end.]

      Presents were scarce, but everyone received a piece of new clothing. Etta said "Very little money and a lot of children." She did remember at one time getting a doll and her older brother, Noland, got a toy tool set.

      She said that she did not remember fruit cake or fruit salads 65 years ago. She did after the stores came. She remembers going to Eddy Carey's store generally, but Cothron's had more supplies.

      The second person interviewed was Bernard Russell, one of John and Louise Russell's children of Matecumbe. When asked about the first Christmas he responded immediately, "I remember it as if it were yesterday."

      He was eleven years old and had already found his Christmas present wrapped with cardboard in the storeroom in back of the house. It was a red and green dump truck and he knew it was his as he had no brothers, only three sisters. His parents had cautioned him before about snooping around because he just might not get any gifts at all. As far as he knew though, he had not been caught snooping around.

      Come Christmas morning, there was nothing for him, not even candy or fruit in his stocking draped over the back of a chair. Everybody had presents, he had nothing! The day dragged on and it was about 3:00 P.M. before his parents finally gave in and let him have his presents. They had taught him a lesson.

     Bernard also remembers the stopper wood trees, but also recalls using Australian pines later.

      Church was also important for their family and even more so if Christmas was on a Sunday. Bernard did not remember receiving Christmas cards, but they did sing Christmas carols in church and around home.

      Somehow for the meal, they always seemed to have a turkey, probably from Key West, that they had kept in a pen by the wash house. Often there would also be a ham, plenty of vegetables that they had grown, guava duff and always queen-of-all pudding. Queen-of-all pudding is a custard pudding with a middle layer of guava jelly and a meringue top.


      Third to be interviewed was the late William Albury, son of George and Mary Annis (Sweeting) Albury. William also remembers putting a stopper wood tree in the corner of their Plantation Key home and decorating it with light bulbs found along the shore. He would take the juice of the prickly pear and mix it with bluing, berry juices and various colors as paint. Of course, there was no electricity on Plantation Key until 1942. They also used clothespins, the two-prong spreader type, to secure small candles as lights on the tree.

      The gift that stood out in William's mind was a train set that he wound up with a key and put on a round track about four feet across. Presents had to be ordered from Key West.

      The family was the focus of Christmas for them. To go to church, which was at Pearl City (about a mile and a half north of Treasure Village), they had to travel by sailboat and wade ashore. Later a road was built from their house.

      The meal would be a chicken or two that they had raised. Plenty of vegetables, especially tomatoes, guava duff and queen-of-all pudding. Guava duff is a type of steamed cake topped with a separate sweet sauce. [See recipes at the end.] He did not remember fruitcake or salad, or Christmas cards until much later.

      Fourth interviewed was Laurette Russell nee Pinder, daughter of Preston (born on Indian Key) and Catherine (Russell) Pinder. The Pinders also lived on Upper Matecumbe Key, but within walking distance of the church on the beach. Church was very important and she would go to three services on Sundays.

      Laurette's dad would cut a stopper tree and her mother had strands of colored wooden beads that she would drape around the tree. The children -Laurette was the youngest of six- would make bows and place special metal candleholders on the branches and sing Christmas carols. Their house was lit with kerosene lamps, so the little candles would really show off.

      The meal was centered around a turkey, one of the two that they had brought up from Key West each year. The other was for Thanksgiving. Her mother would bake cookies, cakes and always a sweet potato pie. Again, there would be plenty of vegetables, puddings and guava duff.

      Laurette just did not remember receiving toys until she was older. She remembers that a new pair of shoes would be her fondest gift of any clothes. When Reynolds and Mary Cothron opened their grocery store on the beach, many things were made much easier.  

- Epilogue -


      These interviews reveal many common threads. There was always a tree of some kind, usually the stopper wood. Church, family and a special meal were the important elements, just as it is today. The spirit of giving and unity were omnipresent.

      Beginning  December, 1990,  the Historical Society has presented an annual Old Timer's Christmas celebration. A local stopper tree is decorated using homemade decorations, a display of vintage toys, samplings of early Keys recipes and an re-enactment of early personalities such as Henry Flagler, Zane Grey, Dr. Henry Perrine, William Matheson, John James Audubon, etc.

- Recipes -

5 eggs
Keep 4 egg whites for the meringue
2 cups of evaporated milk
One 5-ounce can of condensed milk
12 “Uneeda” biscuits (Cuban crackers, unsalted)
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1/2 cup of sugar for custard
8 tablespoons sugar for meringue
One inch chunk of guava paste bar
1 tablespoon butter
    Preheat oven to 350° F.  Beat well 5 egg yokes and one white.  Add the 1/2 cup of sugar and the butter and mix well.  Add evaporated and condensed milk and the biscuits which have been crumbled.  Stir in the vanilla.  Pour into greased pan and bake custard until set (about 35 minutes).     
     While baking, cut the guava paste into small pieces and put into a pan with 2 to 3 tablespoons of water. Melt over a low heat making a syrup.  Beat 4 egg whites until stiff and add two tablespoons of sugar at a time beating after each addition until all sugar is used.    Remove custard when done and lower heat to 300° F.  Pour syrup over custard, spread meringue on top.  ke again at 300° F for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove and allow to cool.  Serve at room temperature or chilled.  Refrigerate left overs.
- - - - - - - - -
3 eggs
2 tablespoons of  butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoons nutmeg and cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups  guava pulp made by forcing thinly sliced stewed fresh guavas through sieve.

    Cream the sugar and butter, add beaten eggs, guava pulp and spices.  Beat until smooth.  Sift flour with baking powder and work into the butter  mixture.  The dough should be stiff. Add more flour if necessary.  Place the mixture into a greased and floured 2 1/2-quart, heat-safe bowl.  Cover with lid or foil.  Place on a rack in a pan with water reaching halfway up the bowl.  Let steam for three hours.  Remove and slice.  Serve with your favorite sauce.  Variations using coconuts and dates were frequently used.  If used, adjustments for moisture and sugar must be made .

      Make and serve with either one of the sauces below:
Butter Sauce :
2 tablespoons of  butter
3/4 cup of sugar
1 egg, separated
    Cream butter and sugar, add egg yoke and mix well.  Fold in the white of a stiffly beaten egg white. Add small amount of hot water or milk if needed.

Vanilla Sauce: 
1/2 cup sugar                                               2 cups boiling water 
2 tablespoons cornstarch                            2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 tablespoons butter, margarine                 1 dash of nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon of salt
    Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in pan.  Add boiling water while stirring.  Add remaining ingredients. Stir until thick.  Brandy, rum, or sherry may replace the vanilla.
- - - - - - - -
3/4 cup of sugar
4 eggs
1 3/4 cups of water
1  14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon (dash) of salt

     Preheat oven to 350° F.
     In a heavy skillet over medium heat, cook sugar, stirring constantly until melted and caramel-colored.   Pour into ungreased 9-inch square or round baking pan, tilting to coat the bottom.
     In a small mixing bowl, beat eggs and stir in water, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, and salt.  Pour over the melted sugar prepared pan and set in a larger pan.  Fill the larger pan with one inch of hot water.  Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.
     Cool, then chill thoroughly.  Loosen sides of flan with a knife.  Serve as is, or invert onto a serving plate with a rim.  Garnish as desired (cool whip, strawberries/slices, etc.).  Refrigerate leftovers.


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