Family dinners, community aid, tamales: Orlando leaders’ pandemic Christmas
Christmas tamales

Christmas tamales
Christmas 2020 still has joy but also a sense of who's missing.

Across Central Florida elected officials say they are planning scaled down Christmases in the age of coronavirus but there still will be family gatherings, food drives, and tamales.

Orange County’s First Couple, Mayor Jerry Demings and Rep. Val Demings, are cutting back on the extended family gathering — a common sacrifice many spoke about — but still having a family holiday.

“I am going to spend time with my immediate family at home. It will be different because we typically have our extended family celebrate together,” Jerry Deming said.

“I usually drive to Jacksonville, pick up my two sisters, drive them back to Orlando and we combine our pretty large family and celebrate Christmas,” Val Demings added. “We will not be able to bring our extended family together this year and Jerry will be forced to only eat my cooking.”

Presumably that will be a better dinner for Mayor Demings than the Congresswoman implied. The other dominant Mayor in town, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, will be dining on the traditional Christmas dish of many Hispanic cultures, particularly in Texas: Christmas tamales.

“Last year Mayor Dyer started a new tradition where they make tamales on Christmas Day and they are looking forward to continuing that this year while staying at home,” his spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser said.

The Christmas celebration starts early, with others, in community food drives, for many elected officials, notably Sen. Linda Stewart and Orlando Commissioner Robert Stuart.

“We have done a huge food collection for food insecurity and we’ll begin delivering to smaller food banks that don’t normally get anything from Second Harvest or whatever. And we’ll be delivering fruit cakes to all the fire departments,” Stewart said.

On behalf of firefighters throughout the county: Uh, thanks, Senator.

“Then we’re doing a family Christmas, the family we live with, no extended family or friends,” Stewart said. “We’re just doing a family Christmas and we’re going to have all the fixings, with turkey and ham and cookies and everything I can get around to baking.”

Few family gatherings anywhere are normally bigger than that of Orlando’s Stuart clan, which has been at the center of area politics and civic engagement for generations. That’s getting scaled way back from the normal 55 family members plus scores of others invited in from City Hall and the Christian Service Center in Orlando. This year, Stuart figures he’ll host maybe 10-12 immediate members.

Like Stewart, Stuart says they’ll start by helping out with community food drives. There also will be a visit to see the Dazzling Lights at Leu Gardens. Finally a home gathering. The extended family still will fully unite, he said, as they’re planning to PhotoShop together the annual Stuart family picture.

“I’m happy that all of us are safe. I’m happy all of us are still employed a little bit. We’ve been blessed,” Stuart said.

Rep. Anna V. Eskamani said, “I’ll be at home, catching up with work and checking in with family and friends through FaceTime and Zoom! Usually I try to travel for the holidays since it’s a little less busy but this year the demand for constituent services has been so high then there really isn’t time to rest. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with some of my Ph.D. work, too!”

Others are avoiding or greatly restricting any gatherings.

“My Christmas festivities will be taking place on the patio and backyard in order to protect elderly family members and a daughter who is in her ninth month of pregnancy,” said Orange County Commissioner Christine Moore.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said that he and his husband, Jerick Mediavilla, “recently made the difficult decision to cancel our Christmas travel plans to Puerto Rico. It’s been a year since we last saw his family, but with so much community spread happening in Florida and on the island, the risk of exposing our loved ones was just too high. This year, we’ll spend the holidays at home with each other and with the hope of future holidays with family outside our own household. We encourage everyone to do the same. “

Sen. Jason Brodeur‘s aide Zack Brodersen said, “the Senator will be having a quiet holiday with close family for Christmas this year.”

“This Christmas will be spent much like Thanksgiving.  I live by myself, so I will spend it alone,” said Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan. “I miss my family, but we decided that having a celebration was not worth risking my elderly mothers life. Coronavirus new Cases in Orange County are now in the thousands per day. I can’t in good conscience celebrate while others suffer.  I will drop the gifts off for them like a makeshift Santa. “

There is a sense of joy remaining for Christmas.

But in 2020 there also is a sadness, for too many.

“This Christmas has been especially hard for me,” said Orange County Commissioner Emily Bonilla. “The person who saved me from a home of neglect and abuse, my grandfather, who was the only one who showed me unconditional love growing up, died on a Christmas afternoon several years ago from a slow and painful death from cancer. So, all I can think about this Christmas is all the families who will spend the holidays without their loved ones and didn’t get to say goodbye to them. My heart breaks for those families and my prayers go out to them all.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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