By KIMEKO MCCOY
Before the Nights of Lights brought millions of people to St. Augustine and before the celebration become known nationwide, the oldest city had a different celebration.
It’s been said that Christmas in St. Augustine was a dreary time in Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ time. In some of St. Augustine’s earlier publications, it was chalked up to many in the newly discovered area didn’t have the resources to dedicate to festivities.
According to a publication at the St. Augustine Research Library, development tycoon Henry Flagler and his wealthy associates were the cause of a little more festive Christmas cheer in St. Augustine.
It was the Christmas of 1899 when some of St. Augustine’s wealthy were entertained at what was the Alcazar Hotel, now the Lightner Museum.
There were homes decorated with traditional luminarias and even an annual Christmas parade, but according to a Nov. 28, 1972, article in The Record, the Jaycees who organized the parade canceled it because of the lack of community interest and participation.
Aside from the lives of the rich and the famous, holiday celebrations didn’t become much of a city tradition until 1975.
This year, St. Augustine celebrated its 40th annual British Night Watch and Grande Illumination. Re-enactors were dressed from head to toe in the attire of British troops, Native American allies and civilians.
Locals and visitors strolled the Colonial Market, met with colonial craftsmen and even watched canon firings.
But where did this tradition stem from?
During the time of the British era, 1763 to 1784, it was a custom that lanterns illuminated the town to celebrate a holiday, victory or any other positive occasion that involved the entire community.
Anthea Manny, secretary of The Committee for the Night Watch, said the event is based on the British Manual of Arms.
“A special night watch is when the governor orders all people to come out with their candles and lanterns,” she said.
St. Augustine’s re-enactment of the celebration began in 1975.
According to the British Night Watch website, a St. Augustine man named George Carroll had a store called The Soldier Shop. The spot was considered a meeting place for the East Florida Ranger’s Fife and Drum Corps.
The site said that Carroll summoned a group of re-enactors with the proposal to try that same illumination that the British had done so long ago.
The first British Night Watch Parade in St. Augustine was held in early December of 1975, according to early St. Augustine articles provided by the historical society. It was sponsored by the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board and The Junior Service League.
The parade was led by the East Florida Ranger’s Fife and Drum Corps. Fifers and drummers and musicians from Orlando also participated, according to the website.
That first parade, Mayor Edward Mussallem concluded the ceremonies.
Since that time, the event functions in very much the same fashion.
Manny said that the event is not one of a local nature and that it celebrated by many but St. Augustine made it a local tradition.
She said that funding for the parade comes from the Tourist Development Council and the parade brings a lot of people to downtown St. Augustine.
“We pull 12,000 into St. Augustine,” she said.
Those people fill restaurants, hotels and more.
The parade even has a following.
“We’ve got a lot of kids that are following us,” Manny said. She’s seen generations of attendees and said that due to the parade falling in the beginning of the holiday season, many families make it the beginning of their holiday tradition.
“They get to see the wonder of the Night Watch,” she said.
The annual Nights of Lights tradition didn’t start in St. Augustine until the early 1990s and Manny’s willing to bet that that tradition stemmed from the Night Watch and Grande Illumination.