Our Florida Winter Wonderland

If one researches the origins of the holiday called “Christmas,” one might be a bit shocked. It will be found that Christmas is much more a part of tradition than religion, an outgrowth from a winter celebration where food and drink were plentiful and work was slim, usually because of weather conditions. In some cultures this holiday lasted a month. People celebrated their health, good fortune, family, friends and the future.

The entrance to Winter Wonderland
Visitors pour into the entrance to Clearwater’s Winter Wonderland, a holiday tradition since 1993.

These celebrations have been oriented around the Winter Solstice for thousands of years. The Mayans, Europeans, Norseman, Germans and Romans all had their winter feasts for rejoicing about what they had and what good fortune would come in the new year.

My favorite is the Nordic version, which celebrated the Yule from the 21st of December, continuing into January. To recognize the returning of the sun and longer days, fathers and sons brought home huge logs and set them on fire. The party would begin and last until the logs burnt out, which could be as long as 12 days.

These celebrations, which eventually evolved into Christmas as a religious holiday, happened long before the birth of Jesus. In the beginning of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday. Some evidence exists in early Christian religious writings that Jesus was born in the spring, so Easter as the main holiday, early on, makes perfect sense.

For me it was about giving thanks, helping those less fortunate and spreading good spirits to all. And that is what I continue to do every year.

But the Bible has no direct mention of the birthdate of Jesus. It was in the 4th century A.D. that church officials decided to make the birth of Jesus a holiday, with Pope Julius I choosing December 25th as the date.

And thus, Christmas was born. The word “Christmas” comes from “Christ,” as in “Jesus Christ,” and “Mass,” which means to come together and worship in thanks.

But this blog is not meant as a history lesson but rather a look at our upbringing and what we were taught in our own homes as children regarding the meaning and value of Christmas.

For me it was about giving thanks, helping those less fortunate and spreading good spirits to all. And that is what I continue to do every year.

You see, I am the Deputy Director of the Clearwater Community Volunteers in Florida. Each year for the past 26 years, I and hundreds of volunteers build a Christmas Village called Winter Wonderland in Osceola Park in downtown Clearwater. It takes us a month to construct and decorate.

It is sponsored by my church, the Church of Scientology. In this way, we make Christmas possible for those less fortunate. Families come from as far away as other states to enjoy the festivities and yes, it is free.

In Clearwater Winter Wonderland, you’ll find Santa in his house greeting children, children decorating cookies with Mrs. Claus, entertainment, food and rides. It has 88 live and lit Christmas trees, decorations galore and entertainment for children of all ages.

Mrs. Claus
Mrs. Claus giving out cookies inside Winter Wonderland

But this is not all we do. There is also the food and toy drive which supports children’s programs through organizations like Lealman Sheriff’s Police Athletic League, the Haven for Abused Women, Shriner’s Hospitals for Children and the Children’s Home in Tampa.

This year, over and above all that, we donated 900 educational toys—toys which teach learning skills, the ABC’s and mathematics—to those programs that most need them. These gifts will be put in the hands of underprivileged children and may be the only gifts those children receive this year.

For me, this is the spirit of Christmas. It was how I was raised. Giving help to those less fortunate. Brightening the days of those around me. Lifting the spirits of those not doing as well as they’d like to because of whatever challenges they face.

I was born, baptized and raised Catholic by Portuguese and Italian immigrants. All my relatives had good, wholesome values and taught them to us as kids. So I teach others the same thing, with the aim of creating a better world populated by people who care about others.

You can find out more about Clearwater Community Volunteers and the other events we do for the community at www.ccvfl.org.

Happy Holidays to you and yours.

Joel Anderson
Dubbed by friends and colleagues: “the Answer Man.”