Dec 03

The Lowest-Key Christmas Ever

After we opened presents this morning, ate the world’s smallest panettone, which came in a box greatly inflated compared to its size, and gave the mice some wrapping raffia (which they like okay but not as much as the yellow legal paper) we decided to go for a bike ride to the state park. I didn’t go there very often as a kid for reasons I don’t really recall right now. Maybe we thought it was for tourists. I’m still not very familiar with it, other than to know where it is (at the opposite end of the island from the Quiet Gardens) and that that’s where the lighthouse is. It was the perfect place to go to today, it turns out.

Today was simply beautiful, a really perfect South Florida day, the kind that makes you understand why tourists come here on purpose and the kind that makes it onto postcards. Sunny and bright with just a little bit of a breeze to keep the weather from being oppressive, and course hardly humid at all. No mosquitoes because it’s winter. Once we got through the gate and into the park proper we saw lots of tigertail butterflies and Mom identified all the native plants for me. It’s really easy riding, smooth and cool, right down the path with no problems. There was a line of cars at the ticketing gate and I felt sort of self-righteous being on my rented bike, conveniently forgetting that I didn’t even have a bike when I was in high school and that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ride it anywhere if I had, since I was very enamored with my car and drove it down the street, literally, to see my best friend. It’s still embarrassing and amazing to me that I lived on a beautiful island for so long and still stayed inside most of the time, reading and wishing I lived somewhere cold.

We were going to take a path through some more woods but there was another family on bikes in front of us and for some reason we didn’t want to speed around them so we veered off to the beach and parked the bikes near some sea oat dunes. Again, a postcard. The beach here is, in my experience, rarely picturesque, depending on how you like your beaches. There’s always a lot of trash washed up (so much so that I usually try to bring a bag to pick some of it up to throw away) plus a lot of sargassum weed, which is the kind of seaweed we have here and which is very messy and full of sandfleas. There’s jellyfish in the winter and clumps of tar all year round. It’s still nice, of course, because it’s a beach and beaches are inherently nice, but it’s not like the pictures of beaches in Costa Rica or Mexico or Hawaii that you see.

Today, however, the water was turquoise and clear and the sand was smooth and devoid of sargassum, and even though there were some jellyfish they were easy to see and not too many. The waves were slow and small and gentle and they made that beachy relaxing sound. The sun was bright but not too bright and we were so happy to be there.

Mom sat down on the dune while I kept walking to the lighthouse, not too far away from where we’d parked the bikes. There were a lot of families building sandcastles and playing soccer and having picnics, as well as a lot of people just strolling along like me. I wondered if any of them lived here and if the tourists were telling themselves they wished they could stay here all year and if any of them had ever seen the beach as beautiful. The water was a little too cold for swimming but there were a couple of people braving it. There were some miserable-looking dogs tied up by the dunes that wanted nothing more than to be swimming by the rocks and potentially catching a big bossy seagull, which were flapping and strutting around like the owned the place. (I kept imagining them saying “Mine? Mine? Mine?” like in Finding Nemo). When I was a little kid before they did the big beach restoration there were lots of rocks up and down the beach, mostly by the walls that the condos put up. Those aren’t there anymore but there were some by the lighthouse. I checked to see if there were sea anemones or crabs or anything but I mostly just saw barnacles, and since the tide was pretty low most of them were closed. I picked up some pieces of coral and shell on the way back.

Mom wanted to bike some more so we were toodling along when we saw a restaurant by a little mooring spot. There’s a big sign that says “All Foreign Ships Must Call Customs” because if you had three hours you could sail here from the Bahamas, I guess, and Customs likes it if you just let them know you’re in town. The restaurant was open, amazingly enough, and there were a ton of people having lunch. Mom was sad that she hadn’t brought any money so that we could have a drink or something but little did she know that I rarely leave the house without ye olde debit card, and so I saved the day by ordering what turns out to be the perfect Christmas Day lunch: fried sweet plantains and conch fritters with lime. Oh man. This is my new Christmas tradition right here. So good. I haven’t had conch fritters in what seems like forever and I’m going to make it my mission to eat them every day that I’m here. As I am already on that schedule with the fried plaintains, my deathy by major coronary event seems imminent. Sigh. So good.

We sat on the seawall and looked at the boats and ate our deliciously fried snacks and drank our lemonade and saw an orange iguana swimming out by the mangroves and also saw a small skate swimming around almost invisibly underwater. There were a lot of little jacks swimming around too (at least I thought they were jacks) and some kid caught one with his fishing pole yelling “Dad! A whole school of jacks!” (aha! So they were jacks!) but he let it go, maybe because it was Christmas. There was an older couple who rowed in from their boat for lunch…he wore a Crazy Christmas tie and reindeer antlers and she wore a short red dress with white fur around the bottom and a Santa hat…with sandals and sunglasses of course. People spoke all different languages and the restaurant staff were yelling and laughing and singing with the customers up on the deck.

I was thinking about holiday traditions as the wind picked up a little and we headed home under the buttonwood and the grapetrees. I’ve spent a decent amount of effort in the last couple of years trying to insure that my Christmases are as stress free as they can be, considering I fly diagonally across the country to have them. I haven’t felt obligated to be with any family other than my mom and sister (whom we fly up to Tampa to visit on Saturday) and I haven’t spent time with people I don’t want to spend time with. I haven’t freaked myself out by buying a lot of presents and I don’t send that many cards or go to candlelight services or get a Christmas tree or listen to Christmas music or bake two million holiday cookies or any of those things. I even like some of those things, like baking cookies for example, but I don’t do them. I have been on a quest for the Lowest-Key Holiday Ever and I think I may have come pretty close today. I even ruined the cake I made last night and didn’t even bat an eye, that’s how relaxed I am.

But I have been thinking about what you miss out on, beside all the things you gain, when you opt out of a lot of the more traditional holiday stuff. The biggest thing is, of course, the sense of anticipation leading up to the 25th, the sense that it’s a special day and a special time of year. I mean, even though we opened presents and had a nice dinner this evening, in some ways it really was just another day, gorgeous conditions at the beach notwithstanding. I’m not done with this kind of Christmas yet but I am starting to opine that there are some good things about adding a little bit of stress in exchange for some more holiday cheer. I can see that in the future I might want to go to a party or something, or maybe put some lights up or Christmas candles or something in my house before I come to Florida. I might attempt some of those royal icing cookies you read about so much in the lifestyle magazine. I can’t promise to wear a full-on Santa dress but maybe I could get it together to sport antlers or something. I figure it could only add to the beach and the fish and the lighthouse and the rocks, the light on the water and the calm on the beach.