Pat’s Wildways: Small town Christmases

By Pat Foster Turley, Ph.D.
December 16, 2021

The Melrose Christmas parade shared the highway with passing cars.


While almost everyone I know was enjoying our Fernandina Beach Dickens Christmas festivities Bucko and I had business in Gainesville and missed it all. But there is no escaping Christmas and that’s a good thing. The Christmas spirit surrounded us on our brief trip anyway.

It started with our inadvertent involvement in the Melrose, Florida Christmas parade. On Saturday we were driving north on Highway 21 from our overnight lodging at The Yearling cabins in Cross Creek and, at the Melrose corner there was a single police car slowing down traffic. When the light turned green and we headed north, suddenly we were side by side with parade floats and dressed up participants travelling north on the southbound lane. “Are we in a parade?” I yelled out the window to a group of people lined up in lawn chairs beside the road. And, yes we were! But it was a very haphazard and dangerous setting. Parade participants tossed out candy onto the highway that we were slowly traveling on, and kids rushed out in front of our car and other cars to grab candy. We parked, watched the small community parade, and were aghast at the number of times we saw small children nearly hit by the still moving traffic on the northbound side of the road. But everyone was cheerful and happy, and celebrating their town with floats from the Kiwanis Club, the Melrose Methodist Church, the Melrose Audubon Society and other local participants all dressed in their Christmas finery. As far as we could tell, a good time was had by all.

Roscoe, the Chaippini’s store cat, joined us at the counter to hear about the stolen Christmas tree.

On our way back from Gainesville the next morning we stopped at Chaippinis, the corner store in Melrose where all local information gets circulated. Ever since I lived in Melrose during my University of Florida college days back in the late 1980s I’ve been stopping by Chaippinis bait, tackle, beer, cigar, you-name-it store every few months on my trips to and from Gainesville. Robin and Mark Chaippini, the third generation owners of this landmark, are my friends and they are always ready to talk. And Roscoe, the friendly cat jumped on the counter to be petted and to hear the stories too.

There was a lot of hubbub in Chiappinis that Sunday morning. People stopped in, one after another, to compare notes on the missing Christmas tree. It seems that Saturday night someone stole the tree! According to Robin this was a “Charlie Brown” tree, which they take out of storage every year, dust off a bit, put on lights, and set it up in their outdoor meeting area. It has been a longtime Melrose tradition for local children to make Christmas ornaments and to decorate the tree after the Christmas parade. This happened right on schedule, but later that night some Grinch stole the tree with all the decorations, lights, whatever. So, so sad. But in a small town like Melrose, the culprits are sure to be found, and be forced to make amends somehow. Next time I stop at Chaippinis I know I’ll learn more about this heinous act.

The annual Amelia Shells Christmas tree is on display at Main Beach.

Back at home in Fernandina, I learned of another Christmas theft, but this one has a happy slant. Amelia Island Shells, a group with a Facebook site and an active physical presence in Fernandina Beach, set up their own Christmas tree of colored sea shells and lights at Main Beach for everyone to enjoy. These active members painted and placed hundreds of green oyster shells to make the basis of the tree, and added a number of large painted shells as ornaments. In the spirit of giving there was also a basket full of painted shells for anyone to take, one or two per person, honor system of course. Well so much for honor. After the give-away shells were gone, people started stealing the special large painted shells that decorated the tree.

But Betty Duckworth, an administrator for Amelia Shells, was not deterred. She told members to see this theft as a good thing, proving that people enjoy the shells, and want to bring them home as memories of their great Amelia Island Christmas vacation. At Betty’s urging Amelia Shell participants are now hard at work making more ornaments for the tree. No doubt these will disappear too. But, a good time is had by all, or so it seems to me.

Merry Christmas one and all. But don’t steal the decorations!

Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Jennie Reid
Jennie Reid (@guest_63416)
1 year ago

Great stories Pa! Keep up the good work! Here in NH we have 6 inches of snow and it’s still coming down! T is supposed to snow til mid morning tomorrow!