Christmas Celebrations Past and Present
By Anne McKay Garris
Before Sand Key - before Island Estates - before Clearwater Beach was much more than cottages and a few homes, there was Christmas on the Clearwater Islands. The first recorded event was a Christmas parade down Mandalay Avenue, probably from the Palm Pavilion to Causeway Boulevard and return, in 1949 or 1950, according to my brother who is the only one I know to ask. He was at Clearwater High School, I was at college, and our Daddy (Major Clifford McKay) had recently purchased a Christmas green Crosby station wagon.
This called for a parade, he decided, and built a crepe paper covered pot of giant artificial Poinsettias to go on top of the miniature car. Then he challenged the handful of businessmen on Clearwater Beach to join him in a parade. The only thing my brother and I remember about the parade was donning Santa hats and riding in the Poinsettia decorated Crosby, singing "Jingle Bells" at the top of our lungs while we rattled a string of sleigh bells out the window.
To my knowledge that was the first and last Christmas parade on Clearwater Beach. The next year the parade was expanded to Cleveland Street and became citywide.
Shortly after that, the Memorial Civic Center was built on the site now occupied by Clearwater Beach's own roundabout. The Memorial Civic Center Committee, established to support activities at the Center, held lavish community Christmas parties at the Center, funded by the weekly bingo games put on by the committee. Each year a very large, colorfully decorated tree had pride of place in the lobby. The party featured Christmas music, a visit by Santa and refreshments served by the Civic Center Committee. At least one time, Santa arrived by helicopter, creating a memorable moment for all the youngsters. The Civic Center Christmas parties were held annually until at least 1972.
In 1961, the Chapel-By-The-Sea started producing a living nativity scene during the Christmas season. Initiated and directed by Keith and Dolores Estes, the program featured the young people of the church as actors in the drama.
At one time, there were live animals in the cast, including a donkey. Tethered outside the church all night between performances, the donkey tended to serenade the neighbors rather loudly. Besides, the young Josephs in the cast kept trying to ride it between performances with bruising results. So the inclusion of live animals ceased but the live nativity presentations lasted until around the middle eighties.
Community Christmas Caroling on Clearwater Beach has always been sponsored by the Clearwater Beach Association, often in cooperation with the Chapel-By-The-Sea. The first caroling was an awkward affair as members of the CBA board and their families wandered along the streets of North Clearwater Beach, singing carols from door to door. The next year they had a hayride in order to cover more territory. After that the caroling was planned for Mandalay Park, next to the fire house. Decorating of the park was done with varying success depending on the energy of those in charge and the number of volunteers to help. For several years all the trees in the park were festooned with white lights. Then one enterprising board member persuaded the City to plant a genuine Christmas tree (probably a pine) in the park and we decorated that until it died. The location of the caroling moved from Mandalay Park to behind Memorial Civic Center, to Pier 60 Park and then back to Mandalay Park.
Each year a number of visitors find out about the caroling and join us. This particular celebration is at least 30-years-old and was better than ever in 2008, with Tim Lindblom and his four daughters leading the caroling.
For a brief time, volunteers from the CBA annually strung white lights on the carrot wood trees in front of the Clearwater Marina. As the trees grew this became more and more of a challenge. None of the volunteers will forget the challenge of untangling miles of tree lights and then stringing them in the trees, using a long, long handled device designed by John Doran who usually wound up chairman of the decorating committee. Eventually, the trees were replaced by other landscaping and the CBA turned its efforts to other projects.
Shortly after Island Estates became a settled community, the neighbors began to decorate for Christmas. Doors and windows, eaves and rooftops were decorated, as well as front lawns and shrubbery. The Island Estates Association began to offer prizes for several categories of decoration. Shortly after Thanksgiving, charming creatures in colorful array began to appear on Island Estates lawns, everything from squirrels, to Santas, to angels, shown in bright display, some of them animated.
The residents took great pride in calling their island "Christmas Island" and invited folks from near and far to come enjoy the wonderland with them. At one point the response was so enthusiastic that traffic became a problem in the days leading up to Christmas. Each year the December meeting of the Association was well attended by residents anxious to see who had won the plaques of recognition to hang in their dens and hallways.
When the Admiral Dinner Boat (now the Starlight Majesty) arrived at the Clearwater Marina, the owners, Phil and Sue Henderson soon offered their own awards for the best decorated back lawns and docks on Island Estates. Since a float around the perimeter of Island Estates was on the dinner boat's route, decorations along the way enhanced the holiday treat and Christmas Island was peopled with all sorts of charming creatures, dressed in colorful attire, animating around the lawns on the street side and Santas "Ho, ho, hoing" from the docks along the waterways.
Island Estates residents found themselves challenged to compete for a plaque of recognition, or free trips on the popular dinner boat. Some succumbed to the temptation of the dinner boat tickets and others managed to decorate both sides of the house, increasing the island's reputation as Christmas Island.
This reputation was further enhanced in 1974 when Roy May initiated the Island Estates Christmas Boat Parade, under the sponsorship of the Island Estates Yacht Club. The first year, boat owners struggled with a method of lighting boats unaccustomed to sporting anything more than running lights powered by small batteries. Over the years the lighting has become increasingly sophisticated. This year the winning entry was a shining green Christmas dragon so covered by lights you could not see the boat. Although there are many boat parades in the area, the Island Estates parade is the oldest and the largest. This year it boasted 44 boats participating.
The City of Clearwater has traditionally festooned the light fixtures on Cleveland Street, across Memorial Causeway and down Mandalay Avenue with Christmas decorations. In 1997, the city fathers unexpectedly decided that the City could afford the decorations on the Causeway and in Downtown Clearwater, but not on Mandalay Avenue. Once again the Clearwater Beach Association stepped in and appointed Gerry Husgen, Joan Hansen and Marcia Blakemore. Calling themselves the "Poinsettia Posse," the ladies begged, cajoled and bullied organizations and businesses on the Beach into contributing a total of $4,800. Soon Mandalay was adorned with beautiful poinsettia designs on the light poles. Strangely, the next year, the City once again included the Poinsettia decorations on Mandalay Avenue in its annual decorating scheme -- and has ever since.
Return to Current Edition