Christmas Traditions in St. Augustine

When you celebrate any holiday there are certain traditions you revisit year after year that make the occasion 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. Of course most of our present-day traditions, including the shopping spree, weren’t introduced until the last century. Christmas wasn’t even declared a national holiday until 1870 (although Alabama made it a state holiday in 1836). However, there are some holiday traditions that stretch back and were celebrated here in Spanish colonial St. Augustine.

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/women 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.    

A color photograph of a woman dressed in a colonial costume holding a plate of oranges and branches in front of a white wooden door. The door belongs to a red wooden building named Sims Silversmith Shop and it is decorated with garland and a wreath.
Christmas decor on the Sims Silversmith Shop in the 1970s

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 festively lit Plaza de la Constitución. By contrast, the colonial Spanish would not have adorned their houses with decorations, or even with greenery, which was a northern European custom. The nativity, called a nacimiento or belen (Bethlehem), eventually became popular as a Christmas decoration in Spanish homes, but until the 1800s, a nativity scene would only have been popular among aristocrats.

A black and white photograph of a woman arranging a nativity scene on a table.
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 vihuetas (guitars), rattles, tambourines and their Arab equivalent, the pandero. It may have also included the zambomba – a jar shaped instrument with a parchment cover, played with a reed that is meant to sound like donkeys braying. This would have been very atmospheric around the nativity.

A color photograph of a zombomba made from a ceramic vessel, rope, fabric, and a long wooden stick.
Zombomba by Wikimedia Commons user El Pantera, 2009

It isn’t entirely unfamiliar to see groups of carolers making the rounds in neighborhoods today, 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, and 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). 

A black and white photograph of a woman dressed in a shawl lighting candles near a wooden desk of drawers, a chair, and a wooden table.

While I snack on Christmas cookies and candy canes, colonial St. Augustinians may have snacked on turrón, 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 turrón and fig-bread for Christmas, I order and forbid that this my city shall consume more than fifty pounds per year.”

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

These days, the climax of the secular celebration for kids, “from 1 to 92,” as Mel Torme put it, is the magical night ride of Santa Claus. In colonial St. Augustine (and today in some parts of Latin America), children were instead visited by the Three Wise Men, or Magi, 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 (Day of the Kings), shoes are filled with hay (for the Magi’s camels) and presents and sweets are left in exchange during the night. 

A black and white photograph of table set with metal plates and bowls. A floral arrangement and candles are in the center of the table covered in a tablecloth. A cabinets with more metal cups and dishes as well as books line the wall.
Yuletide decor inside the Sims Silversmith Shop

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 or the early St. Augustinians. So however, or whenever, you celebrate in the winter season, I hope it is joyful, hopeful, and full of love. Happy Holidays! 

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