A Southern holiday tradition
Words by Christine Van Dyk
Photos by The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art Facebook Page
The sounds of instruments tuning carries across the sky. Horns trill, lips loosen, and a choir of voices climbs the scales. The conductor approaches the stage, formal in his crisp tuxedo, balancing a baton on his fingertips, and with a sudden drop of his hand, the silence is shattered. The music fills the air and yet sound is only part of the sensation. The moment that first note falls, rainbows of color shine through stained glass-like prisms.
Christmas in the Park always takes place the first Thursday after Thanksgiving in Winter Park, Florida. Early in the day, crowds begin to line the cobblestone streets. People carry coolers and blankets, folding chairs, and picnic baskets. Frazzled young moms wrangle toddlers, excited from too many treats, toward fast approaching bedtimes, while empty-nesters who are unburdened by such responsibilities, wonder whether they’ve brought enough chardonnay.
Just before dusk the excitement mounts. A few folks rush to snag the last outdoor tables overlooking Central Park, but most have their eyes on the coveted lawn seats. A countdown alerts the crowd when it’s time to rush the scene and stake out their own slice of grassy real estate. After all, the green space that hugs the stage is the ideal spot for gourmet picnics and up-close looks at the Bach Festival Choir and Brass Ensemble and those legendary windows. The windows are 100-year-old Tiffany glass, on loan from the Morse Museum and scattered across the great lawn like shiny jewels.
“Our benefactor, Hugh F. McKean, knew some people would never step inside a museum,” Betsy Peters, Deputy Director and COO for the museum, said. “Instead, one night a year he had the art transported outside onto the city’s park so people could see it for themselves.”
While the museum boasts priceless artifacts, these particular windows are displayed just once a year. They were created by Tiffany Studios for the chapel of a New York City women’s shelter. McKean bought them from their home on Amsterdam Avenue when the building faced demolition.
“That was 1979, and there were just four windows and six hundred people at the event,” Betsy says. “It’s grown into a must-see celebration for several thousand people that represents all that’s special about small-town America.”
It’s a night built on tradition, one that has marked the start of the holiday season for generations.
“There’s pageantry to this night,” Lisa Tillery, local resident, says. “You bump into old friends and share a glass of wine, stroll among the windows, and listen to the horns and the crashing of the cymbals. It’s part of what makes this place unique.”
It’s remarkable to see how little has changed on the first Thursday of the holiday season.
Everyone in Winter Park still shakes keys along to Jingle Bells and turns on flashlights for Silent Night. People wave to the passing trains, and kids get excited to pet the horses of the mounted officers. But most of all, the beautiful windows still paint pictures of light across the sky.
5 Tips for Christmas in the Park
Arrive Early — Or send a friend to scope out your picnic area.
Stay Late — The concert concludes at 8 p.m., but the windows remain lit for viewing.
Order Ahead — Make sure to call well in advance when ordering meals.
Take the Train — The commuter rail lets off along the park and is the ideal way to avoid
Continue the Fun — This is just the start of the holiday season. Winter Park is also known for
Winter on the Avenue Tree Lighting Ceremony, Ye Olde Hometown Christmas Parade, and the
Holiday Pops concert.