Sunday, January 6, 2013

Paper Mache Christmas Dreams

                If you have ever spent a Christmas in Florida, you know it’s not like Christmas spent anywhere north. In St. Louis, for example, while there may or may not be snow on the ground, it’s always cold enough for a roaring fire in the fireplace.

                Not so in Florida. As a child, I didn't have a clue as to what I was missing. Sure, it sometimes got cold, but often as not, Christmas Day dawned a balmy seventy degrees with bright sunshine. No sledding. No snowmen. But before anyone from north of the Mason Dixon Line feels sympathy for us, let me remind you that there were advantages, too. Chief among them, the ability to take a new skateboard out for a test drive or head over to the beach for a couple of hours to soak in the sun—on December 25.

                One of my favorite Christmas memories began before my bare feet ever hit the Florida sand. The Hetzel Brothers Christmas Pageant became an annual tradition for my family as well as many other families in Palm Beach County. Originating in Nashville, North Carolina in 1933, the display of paper mache figures was arranged to tell the story of the Biblical story of the Nativity. The brothers moved south to Palm Beach County where they first settled in Curry Park next to the water in West Palm Beach.  It was the late 1960s when the annual event moved to the corner of Northlake Boulevard and MacArthur Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens. John D. MacArthur himself gave the brothers permission to arrange the scenes among the rocks on the south end of the big fields there.

                I remember it as always chilly the night we headed over to join the crowds walking through the production.  We parked in the fields behind the rocks and walked up to the entrance. All Floridians were bundled up as if it were the dead of winter in the South Pole instead of the actual temperature of perhaps fifty degrees. Northerners were easy to spot as they were the ones in shirtsleeves. We always put a dollar or two in the donation box—there was never an entrance fee—and joined the line moving slowly past the dramatically lit figures depicting several scenes of the Biblical birth of Christ story. Over the years, the recordings became scratchier and even skipped from time to time, but we would patiently and faithfully listen anyway.

                Fourteen years after arriving in Palm Beach Gardens, Bob Hetzel closed the gates and turned out the lights. He had suffered a heart attack, the pageant was in financial trouble, and the City, responding to complaints from residents, had been pressuring Hetzel to correct electrical problems. Hetzel had been directed to move the buildings on the site after this year’s Christmas display. It was time. There was no fourteenth production and the pageant folded in 1983.

                These days, when you drive by that intersection, you’ll see nothing unusual.  No rocks piled high. No paper mache’ angels lit up against the night sky and palm trees. No faint Christmas carols on the winter breeze. Nothing remains to suggest that it was once the site of an endearing Christmas—and Easter—tradition for families in the area. There’s nothing left of the costumed figures.

Thanks to the generosity of fellow history enthusiast, Don Kiselewski, I spent an evening lost in memories as I viewed the cd presentation Don and his granddaughter, Kelly Chase, prepared for a presentation to The Palm Beach Gardens Historical Society. If you grew up visiting Hetzel Brothers Pageants, make a point of seeing this if it’s ever presented again.  You can even pretend you’re standing in the field listening to the scratchy version of old if it makes you happy. 

This was originally published as the December column, The Florida You Don't Know, with Seabreeze Publications. It was intended to be posted on December 10, 2012, but illness kept me away from the computer and I lost track of my posts. Yikes! I'm back on track now and the posts will start showing up again every Wednesday. Thanks for your support! Ruth


  1. . Funny thing - I was talking about the Pageant this morning to another former Floridian. I was trying to find images of it on Google.(I am in NC now. It has been many years since I was in S. FL) My memory of it is when it was down at Curry Park. I never made it up to PBG to see it. You did a great job on the history of it. Thank you

  2. Anon: Thank you very much for your comment! I love seeing my memories bring back the memories of fellow Palm Beach County kids :)


  3. I am on facebook of Save the history of WPB and could not remember the name, thanks to you I have it now, Hetzel. At Curry Park, was it not displayed in a band stand ? And at PBG, did you know over those rocks was flowing water to look like a waterfall ? I have movie film my dad took of us kids there around 1962l Later FP&L would move across the street. I have not lived in WPB since 1988. My family history is from there, early pioneers in the 1800's, later my grandfather was city commissioner and mayor, architect of some famous places and my dad photographer Holley Studio and PT for Miami and PB post times took many photos of JFK, Churchill and others. I have been living in Western Australia for years but returning to SC in a few days. It will be good to be home. Thank you for posting this.

  4. Thank you, V! I have really enjoyed that facebook page, too. It has often triggered a long-buried memory. Best wishes for safe travel and welcome back to the U.S. :)