The week before Christmas is perhaps the most important of the year in Bermuda, the tiny coral rock anchored in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, for that is the time the Christmas-tree ship arrives. o
Because of its climate (semi-tropical), and its remoteness (the nearest point of land is North (carolina, nearly 650 miles away), getting a Christmas tree in Bermuda is a difficult proposition. But, with its British heritage (it is still a colony) and love of ceremony, Bermuda manages.
Each December a cargo vessel leaves Halifax, Nova Scotia, its decks covered with towering piles of pines bound for the pastel sugar cubes Bermudians call their homes. As soon as the ship pulls out of the canadian harbor, the news appears on the front page of the Royal Gazette, Bermuda's only daily newspaper. Each day the progress of the ship is charted until that happy moment when it zig-zags its way through the surrounding coral, reefs, steams up the Great Sound, past the home where Mark Twain once lived, and docks at Hamilton, the capital of this island nation of 55,000.
The Bermuda longshoremen, never known for their rapidity of motion, spring into frenzied activity as a crane moves into position and unloads stack after stack of fragrant trees.
Storekeepers rush to get their trees and by that night -- usually less than six hours after the trees arrive -- Bermudians are happily whizzing home (if speeds under the island-wide, 20-mile-per-hour limit can be called whizzing) with Canadian pine trees fastened to the backs of their mopeds.
And that night, as you walk along the narrow, winding roads that slice through the island, smell the aroma of burning cedar pouring from graceful chimneys and see the first twinkle of lights from the decorated trees, you experience what is one of the special examples of a very special season.
For Christmas in Bermuda is like that in no other nation. Certainly not the typically white Christmas (it has never snowed here), it is, nevertheless, long on atmosphere, romance, tradition and joy.
Making up for the lack of snow is the spectacular show by the traditional Christmas flower, the poinsettia. Throughout the island towering trees (that's right, trees) of the white and red flowers guard entrances to grand homes and flank the churches on Christmas Eve, when seemingly everyone on the island goes to church -- many to the state-sanctioned Anglican, others to the profusion of fundamentalist, Catholic and Presbyterian churches. Bermuda, with each of its parishes proud of its own church, is one of the more church-going nations in the Western world.
Following church, children are put to bed, sleigh bells are heard (yes, Santa even gets here) and on a crisp Tuesday morning this year (crisp in Bermuda means about 60 degrees), presents will be opened under rafters of cedar that decorate nearly all Bermudian homes. Then it's time for Christmas dinner: turkey, goose, stuffing, potatoes, oranges fresh from the island's trees, plum pudding and -- the ultimate -- cassava pie.
Cassava pie is a 365-year-old tradition in Bermuda. Because of the abundance of the starchy root of the cassava tree, the first settlers developed the pie. Today Bermudians import more than 25 tons of cassava from the West Indies during the holidays; this island's own cassava trees make way for resort hotels and residences on this densely populated island.
Making a cassava pie is a serious project, entailing soaking the root overnight, then grating it, then leaving it overnight again, then straining it through cheesecloth so all the cassava's poison is drained. The cassava is then mixed with various spices to form a crust that is filled with chicken, pork and thyme and baked to make the final product. It tastes -- well -- very different.
The day after Christmas is also a holiday, reflecting Bermuda's British heritage. Boxing Day (celebrated throughout the old British Empire) recognizes the day in England when the landed gentry boxed their Christmas leftovers to give to the less fortunate. That tradition continues in Bermuda today.
But Boxing Day in Bermuda has its African heritage, as well. On that day the Gombeys, brightly feathered dancers who dance through the streets of the island following the beat of a drum and a shrill one-note melody provided by a police whistle, reign. The primitive pageant is a symbol of the importance of Africans in the founding of the island nation.
Bermuda, despite owing its living to American tourists, despite the television of mainly American programs, despite the rapid Americanization of its dignity. That is what makes Bermuda at Christmas -- and at any other time -- such a special place for so many of us.