Songs of snow and holly played on the record player. A fir tree draped in tinsel sparkled in the corner of the living room. Eggnog was served as family and friends, cozy in their new Christmas sweaters, snuggled around the fireplace where logs crackled and glowed. Such was the Christmas of childhood dreams, but how long could it last?
About two hours. It was getting hot inside. Someone opened the windows. The rest of us took off our sweaters and rolled up our shirt-sleeves. Before long, we abandoned the eggnog in the living room and went outside on the porch for a cold beer. The cedar log fire -- we had little experience in lighting such things -- played briefly to an empty room and fizzled out.
Christmas in Bermuda: The sun may shine and the temperatures climb into the 70s, but you do the best you can. The Phoenix Drug Store sells spray-on frost and snowflake stencils. There are no fir trees growing on the island, but a great shipload of them arrives each year from Canada to solve the problem. Even on this semi-tropical island in the middle of the Gulf Stream, Christmas is celebrated as closely as possible to the Christmas of the colonial motherland of England.
There is no snow, of course, and never has been. Reports surface from time to time that snow has fallen, but it always turns out to be goose down leaking from a pillow somewhere or scrapings from the freezers at the ice-cream plant.
Bermuda is far enough north that December is colder than August. On severe December nights, the temperature can plummet down into the 50s, which, coupled with high humidity, can chill you to the bone. Few people have central heating so you can, on occasion, end up a lot colder than you would be if you stayed home in a well-insulated house in the Snowbelt.
But the days are often clear and sunny and warm. The beaches are less crowded than in season, and the sea is warm enough for tourists to swim in, though most Bermudans are so spoiled they dare not swim in water that's under 80 degrees. Foreigners in Bermuda love to go swimming on Christmas Day and New Year's Day, however, so they can send photographs to envious relatives back home.
Santa Claus -- or Father Christmas as Bermudans are apt to call him -- somehow manages the trip to warmer climes and, as in most capitalist countries, turns up at shops and in parades during those hectic final shopping days. He takes children on his knees at the toy stores, and zips around town on a moped. The Junior Chamber of Commerce brings him to Hamilton on a boat, where he is put ashore at Albouy's Point and paraded through town on a fire engine -- a colorful event that will take place Dec. 13 this year.
Poinsettias, which grow inconspicuously and untended most of the year, are ablaze along roadsides and in front yards. And the streets are lit up with multicolored lights, hanging in the casuarina and poinciana trees along the docks on Front Street and stretched overhead along Queen Street up the hill to City Hall. Lights are draped over the "birdcage," the little kiosk on Front Street where a policeman stands to direct traffic, while the larger shops put lighted Christmas trees on their second-floor balconies.
Even the small government ferry boats that ply Hamilton Harbour sport small Christmas trees on their flagstaffs, while the Loader brothers tie a decorated tree to the top of the crane on the dock of their boatyard at Red Hole.
The Christmas trees arrive by ship from Canada, just before Christmas. No matter what the name of the vessel, the freighter is known locally as "The Christmas Tree Boat" and its arrival is a much-heralded occasion -- especially when strikes in Canada or foul weather along the way has made it look like the ship will never dock in time for the holidays. Assuming the boat arrives on time this year, local ethnic groups will hold a Christmas tree display between Dec. 11 and 14 at the No. 1 Passenger Terminal on the Front Street docks in Hamilton.
For the most part, the seasonal island food is typical North American fare. A turkey imported from the United States -- probably a Butterball -- is found at the center of most Bermuda tables at Christmas along with the standard side dishes. But most families will have a rich English-style plum pudding, smothered with strong brandy, for dessert. And every good Bermudan will eat cassava pie alongside their turkey: layers of pork, chicken and beef in a moist and starchy pastry made from the root of the cassava plant.
The official holiday celebrations -- and the leftovers -- continue on Boxing Day, as the day after Christmas is known. In days of yore, the lord of the English manor would dispatch boxes of leftover food and gifts to his servants and tenants the day after Christmas and somehow it evolved into a British holiday. In Bermuda, the day is spent visiting and drinking with friends and relatives.
On Boxing Day, and on New Year's Day, the colorful gombey dancers -- a dance troupe that combines African and Caribbean traditions -- will travel around the island with their drums, bells and whistles, to perform on street corners and wherever else they can find an audience.
Most of the large hotels remain open and experience a surge in guests over the holidays. Almost all the tourist activities continue as though winter never arrived, and, indeed, the weather is usually better for golf and tennis than it is in the hotter months of the year. You can swim, you can sail, and you can attend a Christmas church service on the beach at sunrise. You won't get a cozy snowy Christmas, but you can always pretend. For more information on Bermuda, contact the Bermuda Department of Tourism, 310 Madison Ave., Suite 201, New York, N.Y. 10017, (800) 223-6106.