As a born-and-raised South Floridian, I grew up with the understanding that the Christmas season in Florida wasn’t exactly traditional. We never had chestnuts roasting over an open fire because we didn’t have a fireplace. And because we didn’t have a fireplace, Santa certainly wasn’t squeezing his velour-clad rump through any chimney. (“In Florida, Santa always comes in through the front door,” said my well-meaning mother.)
Still, aside from the occasional childhood longing for snowball fights, Christmas never felt like it was missing anything. We’d gather ‘round the tree Christmas morning in shorts, drink ice-cold eggnog while opening presents, and spend the afternoons test driving our new toys in the Florida sunshine. As we got older, we’d toast candy cane martinis poolside and make plans the next day for a leftovers picnic on the beach. Without snowflakes and snowmen, ugly sweaters and winter wonderlands, Christmas, for us, developed its own warm-weather style.
And the same goes for everyone who calls Florida home. Here, we gathered up 15 ways Sunshine State natives celebrate the season in the most Florida fashion.
We Surf With Santas
It was 10 years ago now when Cocoa Beach resident George Trosset called up his son with a crazy idea: Let’s suit up in Santa gear and hit the surf on Christmas Eve. Now, what’s become a family tradition for him has turned into a major event, attracting thousands of costumed surfers and spectators to the Central Florida shoreline each Christmas eve morning. Some come in full-on Santa suits; others opt for holiday-themed tropical shirts or swimsuits (it is Florida, after all). Either way, there’s incentive to dress your best: An annual costume contest rewards the most festive beachgoer with a custom surfboard.
We Build Sandcastle Trees
If there’s one Christmas tree that could trump the one in Rockefeller Center, it’s Sandi, the world’s only 700-ton sand tree that illuminates the West Palm Beach shoreline through the month of December. Standing at 35 feet tall, the massive sand sculpture is the centerpiece of the South Florida city’s own winter wonderland, which includes live music, light shows, holiday movie nights, and visits from St. Nick himself.
We Decorate in Beachy Style
It’s not that we don’t have traditional Christmas trees in Florida—we appreciate a fresh pine-scented house just as much as anyone. What might be a bit different, however, is the way we decorate them. Some might opt for a full-on theme, like a color scheme of turquoise and sand, while others prefer to pepper their trees with starfish and seashells. Secondary trees are always welcome, too—instead of a traditional miniature, though, ours might come in pineapple form.
We Attend a Boat Parade
Sure, Florida might not be the only state that takes to the water for their holiday festivities, but with more than 8,000 miles of shoreline, there’s a good chance we have more boat parades than any other. From small-town events to big city extravaganzas—including Fort Lauderdale’s Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade, dubbed “The Greatest Show on H2O”—there’s always a floating light show nearby. For particularly scenic parades, check out St. Augustine’s Regatta of Lights or one of the many lighted boat parades along the Florida Keys.
We Send Funny, Only-in-Florida Christmas Cards
We don’t mean to brag, but December in Florida is actually quite magical. The humidity is low, the temperatures are moderate, and there’s always a light salt-air-scented breeze in the air. So, while you send us photos of your family bundled up in red-and-green scarves or footie pajamas, we’ll send ones back of us clinking cocktail glasses on the sand (Santa hats on, of course). Because it’s not an exaggeration—that’s what life is really like down south (and, hey, you can always come visit!).
We Party with Mickey
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more magical Christmas celebration than the one put on by Disney’s Magic Kingdom every year. At Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, holiday revelers can hang with all their favorite characters while indulging in holiday-themed treats, dancing, caroling, and watching the sky light up with fireworks. Bonus for all those nostalgic for the north: It snows, too!
We See the Lights by Beach Cruiser
Touring the neighborhood holiday light displays is a tradition that might stretch nationwide. In Key West, however, instead of bundling up and heading out in a car, light gazing is done from two wheels. Each season, the Key West Lighted Bike Ride invites people to string up their beach cruisers and ride around town taking in the holiday displays from Truman Avenue to Duval Street. Cost of entry is one unwrapped toy to be donated to charity, and the ride ends with a classic Key West-style block party.
We Send Our Christmas Cards From Christmas
For most of the year, Christmas is just another tiny town in Central Florida with an unusual name. But come the holiday season, Christmas—and its teeny tiny red-brick post office—becomes a destination for many Floridians (and beyond) looking to postmark their well wishes from the ultimate holiday-themed location. While in Christmas, make sure to check out their permanent holiday displays, including a tree, nativity scene, and Santa statue, along with the not-holiday-related-but-so-Florida attraction, the world’s largest alligator.
We Welcome Our Santas Sans Sleigh
Christmas lore might tell you that Santa’s primary mode of transportation is a reindeer-drawn sleigh. Not so in Florida. In Apalachicola, for instance, Christmas kicks off the day after Thanksgiving, when Saint Nick sails in on a working shrimp boat. In Cocoa Beach, meanwhile, Santa skydives in to greet eager kids on the beach. And down in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Santa’s been known to make his appearances in Scuba gear.
We Brighten Up Our Christmas Dinners With Citrus
Some Floridians might be so bold as to ditch the Christmas roast in favor of a full-on seafood feast. I, on the other hand, have always opted for a slightly less Florida-fied twist by adding citrus—yes, it’s in season in December!—to holiday menu staples (like roasting a turkey with orange and lemon or simply adding orange juice to your cranberry sauce). And, as always, Publix Key Lime Pie is a strong contender for the dessert menu, no matter the occasion or time of year.
Watch: 10 Easy-to-Make Thanksgiving Recipes
We Deck Our…Chairs
We may have already established that Floridians have a reputation for decking out some unusual things—palm trees and sandcastles, for example. Add to that list a parade of lifeguard stands. At the annual Deck the Chairs event in Jacksonville, local businesses create psychedelic light displays on a string of bright-red lifeguard chairs. The finished products are free to view though the month of December, though money is raised for local charities through concessions and sales.
We Bake Florida-Themed Christmas Cookies
In the Sunshine State, we treasure our annual cookie swaps as much as anywhere else (though we might need to crank the AC up when our ovens work overtime). The difference is our cookie cutters (and toppers) come with coastal flair. Instead of snowflakes and Christmas trees, expect to get Christmas-lit palm trees and beach bum snowmen in your cookie sampler.
We Watch Out-of-This-World Light Shows…
In Florida, we’re pretty proud of the fact that our country’s gateway to outer space lies right in our backyards. But our launch HQ—aka the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral—does more than *just* send rockets to the moon and beyond. They also put on a pretty stellar holiday celebration. In addition to decking out the rocket garden and visitor complex, the center also puts on a kinetic light show featuring “a rainbow of colors and special effects second only to the planets, comets, and stars in the galaxy.”
…and Underwater Spectacles with Mermaids
A visit to the famous Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is somewhat of a rite of passage for Floridians, mainly because it’s home to one of Florida’s weirdest wonders: real-life mermaids. Come the holidays, the traditional underwater production of (what else?) The Little Mermaid switches to a Christmas-themed one, meaning that in addition to the show’s roster of mermaids, visitors might catch a swimming Santa or his elves, too.
We Rock Christmas Flip Flops
Boots? Sure, we have a pair for that rare occasion it dips below 65. (Freezing.) But most of the time, our December uniform is much like it is the rest of the year: shorts, flip flops, and sundresses. Still, we appreciate a good shoutout to the season, so expect our Christmas flair to appear in the form of festive flip flops, tank tops, and even swimsuits.