Sitting in a rocking chair, basking in the quiet of a lovely fall afternoon at Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County, I almost believe that I could have been a pioneer settler.
Then, I look at the primitive appliances in the kitchen and realize that I wouldn't last a day in the 19th century, even if I do like to wear cowboy boots.
Fortunately, the park offers a window into the lifestyle of Central Florida settlers with its annual Cracker Christmas, a free festival that has been celebrating pioneer history for 35 years. This year's edition runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 1 and 2 at the park (1300 Fort Christmas Road, Christmas).
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1300 N Fort Christmas Rd, Christmas, FL 32709, USA
It's a chance to watch demonstrations of weaving, spinning, Dutch oven cooking, blacksmithing, syrup-making and other skills that were essential 175 years ago. The fort was a working destination then, not a novelty taste of unimaginably long-ago times for elementary-school field trips.
Fort Christmas is the centerpiece of the park, off State Road 50 about 15 miles east of the Alafaya Trail intersection that leads to the University of Central Florida. The fort was so named because Army soldiers started building it on Dec. 25, 1837. It was reconstructed by the Orange County Parks Department in 1977.
It was about that time that I started visiting, taking my guitar along to practice songs under the trees. Fort Christmas has expanded since then. Now, there are almost a dozen historical homes and buildings that reflect Florida lifestyle from the 19th century to the 1950s. There's also a decent gift shop that offers T-shirts, cards and an assortment of Christmas decorations.
Despite the holiday name, shared by the tiny town of Christmas, there are year-round park activities. My favorite is the annual bluegrass festival in March, a perfect marriage of music and pastoral surroundings.
Of course, Cracker Christmas is the biggie. Santa Claus will be there (from 1 to 3 p.m. both days) as well as folks from the Christmas Post Office to cancel holiday cards with the town's seasonal name.
Head a couple of miles north from the park on Fort Christmas Road and get as close as you'll ever want to be to alligators at Orlando Wetlands Park (cityoforlando.net/wetlands), a 1,200-acre wildlife preserve that's a quiet environmental gem.
Hey, gators were part of pioneer life, too.