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Getaways: Christmas warm-up

It's not quite over the river and through the snow now that grandma has a condo on the beach, but Florida has its own Christmas joys.

Even on Christmas, the beaches and many of the trails are open. Take a walk in the sun and breeze for a mile or five. You'll feel a slight chill and be able to brag to your northern friends that you went hiking Christmas Eve or took a boat out and landed some mullet on Boxing Day. They'd have to cut a hole in the ice to do that.

Remember, it's not just humans who flock here in the winter; hundreds of species come first. Join the Audubon bird count, and you may find a new family tradition or competition.

College football relocates to the south every year, with three major bowls in Orlando, Tampa and Miami, with games, parades and parties. A little college hoopla and hooray adds to the winter spirit or at least a bit of autumn.

Three Kings
Three Kings Day in Miami [Photo: C. M. Guerrero/El Nuevo Herald]

Three Kings

Miami's Latin community celebrates Epiphany as Three Kings Day, with a massive parade on Calle Ocho. The tradition began in the '70s to protest the absence of Christmas in Cuba. Today, Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior are there with their camels, followed by floats and convertibles loaded with Miami politicians and the stars of Spanish TV.

Fort Christmas

If you must have a sense of hardship, visit the old restored fort east of Orlando where early settlers and troops spent winter in the rough in the 1830s. Modern Floridians congregate the first weekend of December for a big crafts fair and a stamp of that special postmark.

Greek Orthodox Epiphany

More than 40,000 people are expected in Tarpon Springs on Jan. 6. They come as they do every year to watch the young men of the town dive for a heavy white cross. The ritual begins with a procession from the church down to the nearby bayou. Small boats row the divers out, the cross is tossed and the competitors jump in. Minutes later an arm emerges holding the cross. The crowd hoists the lucky youth and carries him back to the church for blessing. Then the town bursts into a daylong glendi of Greek music, dance and food worthy of a village in the old country.

Greek Orthodox Epiphany
[Photo: Lara Cerri/ St. Petersburg Times]