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Community Sunday Favorites: Quirky Christmas Customs


Mary Dwight displays croquet set gift she has just found under the underwater Christmas tree, 1948.

Photo: State archives of Florida

BRADENTON -- There are certain traditions that everyone holds dear when celebrating holidays. My boyfriend, Drew, likes to shoot bottles with a B.B. gun on Christmas Day. 

Drew doesn’t remember exactly when or why he started the tradition, but whatever the circumstances, the act stuck, and he now continues to do it annually.  

While he is a little embarrassed by what he describes as a “low-class” custom, I don’t see how anything could be more fitting. To me, it’s a sensible ritual for a generation that grew up watching A Christmas Story, the movie where Peter Billingsley famously wore a pink bunny suit, groped an indecent lamp and hopelessly yearned for a Red Ryder B.B. gun.

There are all types of quirky customs that people have during the holidays. My brother Elan has to watch Scrooged on Christmas Eve, my mother Bonne’ always bakes cinnamon rolls before opening presents, and my cousins turn up their noses to any cranberry sauce that isn’t straight out of the can – yes it absolutely MUST have the molded ridges formed from being in the tin.

When it comes to quirky customs, Florida takes the cake. We live in a state where, over the years, it hasn't been uncommon to see Santa arrive at an event in Saint Petersburg via motor boat surrounded by bikini-clad models, view a mermaid decocorate a Christmas tree underwater at Weeki Wachee, or witness a Chirstmas-themed waterskiing show at Cypress Gardens.

Back in the 1800s, folks decorated their spruce trees with corn husk dolls, popcorn strings, Spanish moss, bird nests and a few treasured glass ornaments. 

Christmas supper consisted of turkey, ham or whatever was available at the time – like opossum. Opossum’s were caught, then caged for about a month and fattened up on sweet potatoes. They were cooked in a Dutch oven over hot coals and served with yams, pecan pie, corn soufflé, quail pie and corn bread and biscuits. 

Back before movies were available, residents of Bradenton and neighboring communities had to entertain themselves on the holidays. The Christmastime event of the year was a tournament, which was held on Fourth Street West in Bradenton, the originally location of the Seaboard railroad station. 


Harry Dewey posed with snakes for a Christmas card photo, 1910.

Photo: State archives of Florida

According to Jack Leffingon, a resident who brought the first telephone lines to Bradenton, it was modeled after a jousting tournament of medieval times. There were squires, heralds and man-at-arms, all in costume. 

A large grandstand was constructed and decorated with palm leaves and a crown was made for a reigning queen who presided over the ceremony until she was succeeded by a newly nominated maiden. 

The “knights” had costumes that were colorfully decorated with a symbol painted on their shield. Leffington remembered that his uncle’s shield had a black and white Tom Cat with its tail in the air. Each contestant would have to ride their horse down a  fairway about 300-feet long and unhook as many iron rings, which were suspended by flexible fastenings and placed at eye level, as they could with their lance, while riding at full gallop. The winning knight elected his lady love as queen. Then everyone ate a picnic supper, which included real ice cream made from the Warner Ice House in Palma Sola. 

Festivities commenced with a grand ball held in the schoolhouse in Manatee. Candles lighted the entire building and dancing ended at midnight.

Of course times have changed. Those days of formal jousting tournaments are long gone with no chance of revival. Instead, families curl up to their favorite Christmas movie and cling to much more simple traditions, like shooting a B.B. gun in the back yard, to celebrate the holidays. 


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