A Colonial St. Augustine Christmas

When you celebrate any holiday there are certain traditions you revisit year after year that make the day special and personalized, even if it’s celebrated by millions of other people. If you celebrate Christmas, chances are you have been steeping yourself in these traditions for the past month. This was the case for St. Augustinians in the colonial era as well. Not everyone in colonial St. Augustine celebrated Christmas: Native Americans who did not convert to Christianity had their own set of traditions and beliefs, and African slaves and freedmen may have practiced religious observances and traditions from Africa (most likely Igbo, Yoruba, or Fulani). However, in colonial times, the majority of citizens would have observed Christmas, and we have some records of how it was celebrated. Keep in mind that for most of St. Augustine’s colonial history (1565-1821) it was under Spanish control, and therefore Catholic. There was a British intermission from 1763-1784, with most citizens observing the Anglican (Episcopalian) faith.

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HSAPB Christmas decor at the Sims Silversmith Shop, 1974

Driving through neighborhoods on the hunt for dazzling light and decoration displays was a Christmas tradition for me growing up, and these days it’s walking through the plaza under the gorgeous Nights of Lights. By contrast, the colonial Spanish did not adorn their houses with decorations, or even with greenery – that was a northern European custom. The nativity, called a nacimiento (Nativity) or belen (Bethlehem), was popular as a Christmas decoration in Spanish homes…eventually. Until the 1800s, a nativity scene would have only been popular among aristocrats, a class of citizens in short supply in St. Augustine.

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Mary Virginia Pinkham setting up a “nacimiento” in the Ribera House, 1970

A familiar part of contemporary Christmas is the vast canon of holiday music streaming from televisions, radios, retail store sound systems, and online ads (ad infinitum). Music was also an integral part of celebrating the season throughout the colonial era. First-person accounts from 1696, 1702, and 1780 all reference playing instruments and singing on Christmas Eve. The instrumentation of this revelry would have likely mirrored that of Spain at the time, and would have included rattles, vihuetas (guitars), tambourines, and their Arab equivalent, the pandero. It may have also included the zamboba – a jar shaped instrument with a parchment cover. When played with a reed it is meant to sound like donkeys braying. This would have been very atmospheric around the nativity.

It isn’t entirely unfamiliar to see groups of carolers making the rounds in neighborhoods in modern times, which is a practice stemming from the Anglo-Saxon tradition of wassailing. The difference, as far as I can tell, is that carolers perform for well wishes and Christmas tidings, while wassailers perform for booze and snacks. Think of it like Christmas trick-or treating. In his journal, Jonathan Dickinson observed that some St. Augustinians in 1696 partook in the Spanish equivalent of wassailing, known as pidiendo aguinaldo. To him it looked like begging from door to door, but the Andalucian practice involves singing songs for gifts with the closing line, “vamos pastores, vamos, vamos para belen” (Let’s go shepherds, let’s go to Bethlehem).

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19th century Christmas table setting inside the Benet Store, 1970

While I snack on Christmas cookies and candy canes, colonial St. Augustinians may have snacked on turron, a mix of almonds, honey, sugar, and egg whites that originated in Arab and Berber kitchens during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages. This treat must have been pretty dang good because in 1559, King Phillip II wrote in a letter (in reference to Catalan) that, “on turron and fig-bread for Christmas, I order and forbid that this my city shall consume more than fifty pounds each year.”

Of course, Christmas was explicitly a religious holiday for colonial St. Augustinians, and every Catholic would have attended the mass on Christmas day.

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Lighting candles inside the Ribera House, 1970

The climax for the contemporary secular celebration of the holiday for kids, “from 1 to 92,” as Mel Torme put it, is the magical night ride of Santa Claus, and his customary home invasion and gift bestowal. In colonial St. Augustine, the Three Wise Men, or Magi, visited children with gifts on January 6th. This coincides with Epiphany, the day the Magi arrived at the manger to celebrate in adoration of the baby Jesus. In some observances of El Día de Los Reyes, or Day of the Kings (still celebrated today in some parts of South and Latin America), shoes are filled with hay for the Magi’s camels and presents and sweets are left in exchange during the night.

However far removed the colonial days seem from us today, I find some comfort in knowing that we share, or at least echo, some of the traditions of the early St. Augustinians. So however, or whenever, you celebrate Christmas, I hope it is joyful, hopeful, and full of love. Merry Christmas!

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