Why St. Augustine Has More Holiday Spirit Than You
“My town is better than your town at celebrating the holidays.” When I first moved to St. Augustine, I would have found such a statement dubious. I came to the nation’s oldest city in Florida to escape the snow and ostensibly all of the things I associated with it. Christmas carols were the last thing I wanted to hear while shoveling my car out of the driveway, but where I’m from hypothermia and holiday spirit go hand in hand. My decision was easy, but I thought I had to sacrifice the spirit of St. Nicholas for the sunshine of St. Augustine. However, once I got here, I realized how very wrong I was. Hypothermia is not a prerequisite for holiday spirit in St. Augustine. In fact, it’s not even involved. I would go so far as to say that St. Augustine is the best at celebrating the holidays, even without snow. When it comes to the holidays in St. Augustine, scrooges need not apply.
1. Our Cross is Bigger Than Yours
One big clue that St. Augustine knows how to holiday should have been the giant cross on the river. Christians celebrate Christmas as the birthday of their Lord and savior—Jesus Christ. Christianity's most prevailing symbol is that of the cross, so it’s easy to feel in the holiday spirit when you see the really, really big one at the Mission Nombre de Dios. Before the cross is a meticulously manicured park that is an accordingly beautiful must-see for religious and nonreligious visitors alike.
Another must-see is the Navidad en el Viejo San Agustín. For this December celebration, the park is decked out with candles, and a variety of historical demonstrations take place. There's authentic Spanish dishes, a traditional play about the nativity, live music, and more. The park is open year-round and is free, but donations are encouraged. I can't stress enough how gorgeous this place is, and how that gorgeousness can inspire particularly jolly sentiments between November and January. Frankly, I'm a little suspicious of how peaceful and contemplative this place makes me feel. To find out what's really going on here, you'll have to investigate for yourself.
2. Twelve Days of Christmas? Weak Sauce. I'll Take Two Months (Nights of Lights)
Head south on San Marco Avenue and leave all of that contemplation behind, because starting on November 22nd downtown is inundated with sights, sounds, and people who really seem to love said sights and sounds. This month-and-a-half-ish long event is aptly named “Nights of Lights.” It is called this because all of downtown is covered in twinkly white Christmas lights. Obviously, these lights are best enjoyed at night. No building is spared, and even most of the trees are covered in lights. And the lights do not just spontaneously appear. The event is kicked off by a lighting ceremony in the town square.
Even if you have no inclination to attend this event, as I have not on several occasions, if you are downtown, you are attending this event. In fact, you might as well abandon all hope of accomplishing anything downtown on November 22nd and just accept that you will be celebrating the lighting of the city. If you try and leave by vehicle, you will surely be stuck in traffic, where you will push your car's sound system to the limit just to counter the spirited live musical performances and the sounds of sheer and unadulterated human joy that will fill the air between songs and sets. If you're stuck in traffic, you'll probably be stuck behind a horse and carriage, where you will be forced to contemplate how much more fun everyone on that carriage is having than you. If you're on a bike, forget it. You will succumb to the temptation of ditching those pedals for parading with the masses of revelers. There is no escape. You will listen to the mayor speak and you will cheer as they flick the switch and make the nights in St. Augustine brighter for weeks to come. You are one of us now. One of us, one of us...
3. Dashing Through The Lights, In a One-Horse Open Carriage
But if you're all gung-ho for staying downtown and actually enjoying the festivities, that whole horse and carriage thing probably piqued your interest. If you're in love, and your lover happens to love you back, might I suggest the Nights of Lights Lovers' Carriage Tour? Is your love unrequited? Or maybe you're not in love at all. Perhaps you have multiple lovers, or you live at home with your parents. In any case, the Nights of Lights Wine and Carriage Tour might best suit you.
4. Holly Jolly Hilarity
Maybe you don't think that horses and romance have any business being in the same sentence together, let alone on the same streets, but you still want to see all the lights while feeling both holly and jolly. Starting on November 23rd you can breeze past the buggies on Old Town Trolley's Holly Jolly Trolley. Between the hours of 6 and 9 p.m., the streets of St. Augustine are filled with trolleys and cheer as riders scream Christmas carols at the top of their lungs. Remember how I said that Nights of Lights inundates downtown with sights and sounds? Consider this another unavoidable example of both. If caroling and screaming at pedestrians are not enough, your Holly Jolly Trolley ticket entitles you to cider and cookies.
5. B&B or Bust!
Photo courtesy of Bayfront Westcott House.
On the off chance you forgot, St. Augustine is a tourist town. We're also known for our charming, comfortable, and beautiful bed & breakfasts and inns. Why wouldn't there be a B&B tour, especially during the holidays? Between December 13th and 14th, twenty-four of St. Augustine's B&Bs are open to public perusal as part of the Bed & Breakfast Holiday Tour. If you prefer your holiday music on the quaint side (as opposed to screaming it from a trolley), each bed & breakfast is thematically decorated to the tune of specific holiday carols. Old Town Trolley offers service to nearby stops. Even though you'll have to use your feet to walk to and from the B&Bs, you won't ever have to walk too far.
6. (Other Peoples') Home(s) For the Holidays
If the B&B tour isn't voyeuristic enough for your festive fetishes, you can take a holiday tour through six 19th century homes. The Christmas Tour of Homes takes place on December 7th and is truly a once-in-a-life-time experience (or at least it's a once-in-a-year experience, as this is the 46th annual iteration of the tour). Between the hours of 12 and 5 p.m., guests can explore the homes at their own pace. The holidays are hectic enough, so a spot of tea at one and hand-made treats from the host organization Garden Club members contributes to a more leisurely pursuit of charm and cheer. If you think St. Augustine's historic homes are beautiful in July, you really ought to see them decked out for the holidays. I recommend wearing a sweater. It is not that the weather or the interior of the homes will be particularly cold, it is just that a sweater is seldom appropriate attire for Florida. Savor the sweater!
7. Holly Water
The Bridge of Lions is a great spot to get a picturesque view of our brilliantly lit city, but even better is the view from the water. The Nights of Lights Water Tour operates from November 22nd—January 31st and leaves from the Vilano Beach Pier with Jax Water Tours. This offers guests a tour of the city's lights without all of the landlubber gridlock. You can even enjoy the lights dressed as a pirate. You'll have to provide your own pirate attire, but what could be a more definitive St. Augustine holiday experience than dressing up like a pirate and taking in the pretty lights from a boat? Combining this with any of my other suggestions would be a sufficient answer, actually. Oh, and don't forget your sweater.
8. Menorcan Christmas – It's all Greek to Me
Between November 22nd and January 3rd, guests can experience a traditional 18th century Menorcan Christmas. The celebration takes place at the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse. You may want to omit that detail from your itinerary if you're planning on bringing children. It is not that the Oldest Wooden School House is not a great place for educating children about how kids like them used to go to school, or how lucky your kids have it living in modernity; it's just that “school” is the last thing a kid wants to hear about while on winter break. Tell them it's a “cool house” instead. They won't see through that, at least not immediately. Obviously it works best if they're not old enough to realize just how much you lie to them (especially this time of year).
9. Right in the Feels (It's a Wonderful Life)
Meanwhile, on the island, the fine folks at the St. Augustine Amphitheater want to make sure you remember just what the holiday season is all about. On November 28th they're screening the classic film “It's a Wonderful Life.” Why? Because it really is a wonderful life, especially if you're in St. Augustine. If that weren't wonderful enough, Santa will be there. That's right, it's the big man himself. He's the head holiday honcho. You know, the one with the beard and the elves and the lists? The stud of spirit? He's bringing with him train rides, face painting, and a bounce house. He probably won't be joining you in the bounce house, no matter how badly you want him to, but he's really good about letting people ask him nicely. You just have to sit on his lap.
The following night will feature many of the same activities. However, instead of that super sad movie that forces you to be thankful for all of the nonmaterial richness you have in your life, elves will read stories! The whole experience is part of the December to Remember series of events, and the full schedule can be found here.
10. Night of Lighthouse
The St. Augustine Lighthouse never gets a night off, and Nights of Lights is no exception. The folks in charge of St. Augustine's mightiest light throw a spectacular family-friendly party. It's called Luminary Night. It takes place on December 3rd from 6 to 9 p.m. and it features crafts, food, and music for all. Enjoy a nautically-themed Christmas tree while swaying to a string quartet. Guests can also climb to the top of the lighthouse tower to take in the sight of all the other lights the city has to offer. You'd better believe Santa will be there as well.
Santa makes so many appearances around town, you might think he actually lives here instead of the North Pole. Have you ever run into that really friendly guy who wears the green shorts (and not much else) and wondered? Even if green shorts guy isn't secretly Santa, he looks close enough, and you can usually find him any day of the year either downtown, on the bridge, or on the island. You should seriously look for him when you visit St. Augustine. I'd go so far as to argue that no trip to our fair city is complete without a green shorts guy sighting. Not only is he filled with spirit and cheer (especially if you buy him a beer), I think he aptly symbolizes our city and its relationship with the holidays. We're simply better at it than you, and it might look weird at first, but we want you to love it as much as we do.
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