- Written by Andrea Gross Andrea Gross
St. Augustine, Florida, which was founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1565, is festooned with 3 million lights. These represent the candles that brighten Spanish homes during the Christmas season.
The town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, features a parade of les petits chanteurs who sing French carols, while the Kansas community of Lindsborg, settled by Swedes in the late 19th century, celebrates Christmas with Scandinavian music and folk dancing.
And so it goes. Across the United States, people come together to observe the holidays in ways that combine quintessentially American customs while at the same time honoring the traditions of their ancestors.
Here, a spotlight on three towns that speak to the best of America: its commonalities as well as its diversity.
St. Augustine’s Spanish Heritage
I take a sip of water. According to legend, this water, which comes from a natural spring near St. Augustine, Florida, is going to bestow upon me a magical gift—the gift of eternal youth.
Convinced that they’d found the storied Fountain of Youth, the Spanish, along with enslaved African-Americans and native Timucuan Indians, established the first permanent settlement in what became the United States.
Then, knowing that their families back in Europe were celebrating the Fiesta de Navidad, they celebrated a Christmas Mass. It was the first Christmas in the New World.
I swallow the water, but it’s laden with sulfur and smells like hard-boiled eggs. I’d rather have eggnog.
Today, St. Augustine’s annual “Nights of Lights,” which has been selected by both National Geographic and the Smithsonian as one of the world’s best holiday displays, begins the Saturday before Thanksgiving and runs through the end of January.
Ste. Genevieve’s French Connection
Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, 60 miles south of St. Louis, is a charming town of 4,500 people, most of whom trace their ancestry back to France.
We explore streets filled with intriguing shops and eateries, stopping for nearly an hour at ASL Foundry, where we watch folks craft pewter plates, goblets, and—to my delight—Christmas ornaments.
Finally, we make our way to the town’s historic district, which has gained worldwide recognition for its collection of French Creole buildings.
Christmas in the historic district begins the day after Thanksgiving with Vieux Noël in Lights, during which folks follow a path marked with signs that tell the Christmas story. The path ends at a small crèche that has been secreted in a boxwood grove.
The Holiday Christmas Festival, which takes place a few days later on the first weekend in December, celebrates 500 years of the area’s rich musical traditions.
Free performances feature everything from chamber concerts and violin concertos to church music and holiday carolers. For good measure, there’s even a grand holiday parade with Santa.
In addition, the Felix Vallé State Historic Site hosts Le Réveillon, which features a French Christmas circa the early 1800s.
As French music plays in the background, guides in historically accurate dress explain the various decorations and encourage people to taste test dessert items such as bûche de Noël, a sweet rendition of the Yule log.
But the biggest holiday celebration is La Gulannée Watch Party on New Year’s Eve. Similar to the English custom of wassailing, partygoers dress in outlandish costumes and go from house to house begging for favors.
Lindsborg’s Swedish Celebration
In Lindsborg, Kansas, where more than a third of the residents are of Swedish descent, Christmas is all about music.
The season kicks off the first Sunday in December with a music-filled Jultide Concert and doesn’t fully end until spring, when the town choir performs the country’s longest-running annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah.
The biggest event of the season is the St. Lucia Festival, which celebrates the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.
To brighten a time when light is in short supply, a young girl adorned with a crown of lighted candles is chosen to serve cookies and coffee. The candles, which are set among green leaves, are meant to show that the dark winter is turning into a bright spring.
Finally, as Christmas winds down, folks begin to prepare for the spring presentation of Handel’s Messiah. Although the oratorio is traditionally associated with Christmas, only the first section focuses on the birth of Christ. The latter parts tell the story of death and resurrection and were originally intended to be performed at Easter.
It is then, after a weeklong celebration, that the 200-person Bethany Lutheran Choir performs the well-known piece. As the last notes fade away, Lindsborg’s Christmas truly ends, just as the sights and sounds of spring begin to fill the air.
Feliz Navidad, joyeux Noel, god Jul ... Happy holidays to all!
For an expanded version of this article that includes other ways that these towns celebrate their heritage, see www.traveltizers.com. Photos © Irv Green unless otherwise noted; story by Andrea Gross (www.andreagross.com).