St. Augustine celebrates Christmas in very traditional ways

December 13, 1992|By Carol Godwin | Carol Godwin,Contributing Writer

It's that time again, when thoughts wander back to Christmases past and race ahead to gifts not purchased, let alone wrapped.

Relax. This season, why not try a slower pace and the gift of time to reflect on the amalgam of traditions that have brought us to Christmas present.

In St. Augustine, Fla., the nation's oldest city, centuries of Spanish, British and American yuletide customs blend like brandy in eggnog and offer an Old World Christmas to toast and savor.

Festooned streets and cobbled alleyways herald the season as the oldest city ushers in Christmas with the color and pageantry of a British night watch ceremony and grand illumination. Handel's "Messiah" echoes through the Cathedral Parish Center, century-style carolers warble in the historic district, harpsichord refrains fill the Castillo de San Marcos, and luminarias line the plaza. Clip-clop carriages ferry visitors on a holiday tour of bed-and-breakfast inns, the Garden Club opens doors to many St. Augustine homes, and the city welcomes the military with a free day on the town.

But gala parades, Santa and twinkling trees weren't always part of Christmas here. Celebrations were meager 428 years ago. No holly wreaths and sleigh bells, only palmetto thatch, the clank of Spanish armor and a crude wooden altar marked the feast day in tiny San Augustin, settled just three months prior in 1565.

As the oldest permanent European settlement in the continental United States, St. Augustine was founded 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown, Va., and 55 years before the Mayflower let the Pilgrims off at Plymouth Rock. Five different flags have unfurled here, leaving the city a rich heritage stratified by time.

There's not much information documenting just how these early Christmases were celebrated, but it's certain that 18th-century St. Augustine lacked the ornamental glitter and glitz that signals 20th-century yuletide fetes. Decorating the city's Restoration Area buildings is always an imaginative task, since practically no records were kept of everyday life in Spain's new world. The early settlers did keep accounts of military and financial affairs that reflect a picture of a soldierly population struggling to

survive.

Halls not decked

It's doubtful the Spanish decorated their houses for the season, as decking the halls with greenery was a northern European custom, not a Spanish one. The manger scene, now the most widespread Hispanic Christmas decoration, was popular only in aristocratic 18th-century homes. Not until the next century did it become an important expression of folk culture. Spanish children didn't hang up stockings on Christmas Eve; instead they practiced nacimiento, a custom of hiding slippers and shoes for Balthasar and the Wise Men to fill with goodies.

St. Augustine's early holiday remembrances centered around festive religious celebrations, music and fasting. Jonathan Dickinson's 1696 journal describes Spanish soldiers "tinkling on a piece of iron and singing." As the Spaniards huddled within the Castillo surrounded by English forces on Christmas Eve night 1702, the governor ordered both troops and townspeople to play their vihuetas (guitars) and harps to bolster morale.

Holiday activities of the day mention soldiers and Christian Indians begging from one another -- acting out the Spanish custom of pidiendo aguinaldo, or asking for small gifts, which were exchanged on the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings, Jan. 6.

When the British arrived, the season took on more of their traditional customs. Homes were festooned with holly, laurel, mistletoe and fruit, which was brought into the house on Christmas Eve and allowed to remain only until the Twelfth Night. But even the British can't claim the Christmas tree. A German practice, trimming the Christmas tree is not documented in America until 1821.

Laden with traditional English fare, Christmas tables groaned. "Being Christmas day a very good dinner of Roasted Turkeys and Pig, Corn'd Beef, Ham, Plumb pudding and pumpkin tarts etc. was provided by our Mess and having invited the Mess at Parole Corner to partake thereof, we dined together Thirty in number very heartily, and many of the Company as merrily spent the Evening by a variety of Songs." So recorded Josiah Smith, a rebel prisoner from South Carolina who spent the holidays of 1780 in St. Augustine.

Thanks to Henry M. Flagler, his railroad and his hotels, b Christmas 1899, Victorian-clad guests flocked to this fashionable seaside resort to celebrate the season. A Dec. 30, 1899, story in the Tatler, a local tabloid of the day, reported that the Alcazar Hotel (now the Lightner Museum) "entertained many notables on Christmas. The early train brought John Phillip Sousa, the great impresario and composer, accompanied by his wife."

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