Even in the South, Christmastime brings forth visions of crisp, cold weather, possibly some snowfall, and people bundled up to fend off the winter chill. In Virginia or the mountains of North Carolina, for example, a cup of hot chocolate by the fireside is a real possibility in the chilly month of December.
But in Florida weather normally won’t provide for such traditions. Snow is rare (although not totally unheard of: the middle portion of the state, at least as far south as Gainesville, saw some back in 1989), and while below-freezing weather is possible and a few nights each year there may be a hard freeze, most days are in the mid-seventies or higher.
Yet despite the lack of very conventional Christmas-y weather, Florida has plenty of Christmas traditions—some the same as the rest of the nation, others found in the rest of the South, and some of its very own. Saint Augustine, the nation’s oldest city, is an obvious example: the city takes great pride in delighting its visitors with a beautiful, festive display of lights and mirth.
The year 2015 has been quite a year of celebration for Saint Augustine anyway: Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia visited the city to celebrate the city’s 450th birthday and that many years of Spanish-Floridian shared history. Civic buildings, businesses, and private homes alike displayed the colors of Spain for this event, and befitting a royal visit, many buildings got a fresh coat of paint or other efforts to spruce them up so the entire town has a gleeful sense of pride evident more than ever now.
The setting of the old quarter provides the perfect backdrop for garland, lights, and good cheer, and Saint Augustine has understandably become a top tourist destination for the holidays. The formal onset of the holiday season is the tree-lighting ceremony, known as the Night of Illumination, held in 2015 on November 21, but the lights remain on until January 31, providing ample time for visitors and locals alike to really enjoy them. Nearly every possible building downtown sports lights, from the impressive Lightner Museum to the most humble of old shops to private homes throughout the charming neighborhood between the historic district and Flagler College.
Much of the grand architecture of the post-colonial period you see in downtown Saint Augustine is from the efforts of Henry Flagler and Franklin Smith, industrialists who ushered in Florida’s golden age of tourism with their swank, expansive, hotels. One of these hotels is now the primary campus of Flagler College, while the Hotel Casa Monica serves as a fine hotel once again after a period of service as the county courthouse and county offices. These large structures impart a sense of scale and advancement to the colonial district, indicating how from humble origins Saint Augustine grew over the centuries. They also indicate that this is in fact where Floridian tourism really began, with northerners coming down via train to soak up the sun in the winter.
How people enjoy the region has only expanded, and while the warm weather and historical charm of Saint Augustine remain prime draws for visitors, the beach and sports associated with it are also highly sought-after. The winter holidays help build a bridge between old-timey tourism and the new, with carriage rides and walking tours offering a romantic, intimate way to see the sights.
With all on offer, there are some sights (and sites) that could be overlooked but are worth a visit. For one, there is a National Cemetery in Saint Augustine, not far from the heart of the historic district and near the headquarters of the Florida National Guard. With the sharp and smart old buildings of the National Guard post around it as well as historic homes, the National Cemetery is a somber but fitting place to recall the selfless service of many to our nation. The Cemetery and its neighborhood can be easily walked to from the historic district and it’s a very pleasant walk, though they are often left off tours.
Another tradition of a Southern—especially Floridian—Christmas is citrus, since this crop associated with sub-tropical Florida becomes ripe in the winter months. Christmas oranges have long been a favorite treat throughout the South at Christmastime, shipped north via train in time for December 25, but in Florida itself grapefruit and lemons also come ripe in December and grapefruit is a favored breakfast staple. Look for oranges—and sometime other citrus—worked into holiday decorations around Saint Augustine and possibly even some on trees in yards here and there, though the lion’s share of Florida citrus these days comes from south of Orlando.
The Floridian Restaurant, a local favorite that has garnered national fame for its fresh take on Southern favorites and Floridian cracker cooking with locally-sourced ingredients, has moved its location to a larger space about two blocks from its original building. The new space boasts a full bar, an upstairs seating area, and simply more room all around. The food, thankfully, has not changed.
Cousteau’s Waffle and Milkshake Bar is another local business that really gets into the festive spirit: its combination of dessert favorites such as its Hennessy Waffle which takes the idea of the campfire s’mores and builds an utterly sweet treat from that atop a waffle just seems perfect for chilly weather.
While it may not have snow or iced-over ponds for skating, Saint Augustine carries much of the old-time charm we all associate with Christmas while providing visitors from areas north a most-welcome escape from cold and gloom. Where else can you stroll around at night looking at endless lights strewn around buildings and into the trees . . . but after a sunny day at the beach?
SEE MORE MIKE WALKER “CHRISTMAS IN FLORIDA” PHOTOS HERE