Celebrating Christmas the old-fashioned way in Manatee Village

Special to the HeraldDecember 16, 2012 

MANATEE -- "My name is Father Christmas," said the Victorian Santa, who wasn't wearing a red suit or a cap, but rather a white outfit with a green cape, and on his head, a wreath.

Father Christmas was sitting next to the tree inside the old schoolhouse at the Manatee Village Historical Park's annual Christmas celebration.

"I've been known by many names over the years," he said, still in character. Joe Giles is his real name.

He's a former North River fireman who lives in Palmetto, and he was having a grand time entertaining the children and adults who were visiting the park on Saturday for a 1912 Florida Cracker Christmas.

Giles is one of several volunteers who helped make the old-fashioned Christmas celebration a special day for the visitors.

The word "cracker" stems from Florida's pioneering days when cowboys would crack their whips.

The park, home to several historical buildings, was decorated in garland, lights and wreaths. Roaming carolers in Victorian-era costumes sang throughout the day and artisans spun yarn and made bonnets and brooms and other traditional things.

Wally Mills of Bradenton was busy in the blacksmith shop, where it was a bit hotter than the 80-degree day outside.

He was melting and shaping metal, making a wall hook for 6-year-old Phoebe Chase, who sat in a chair and watched.

Her mother, Lindsey Hilton, looked on.

"I plan on finding a nice piece of wood to put it on, and later on I'll have the board mounted on the wall, so she'll have a place to put her backpack," said Hilton, who lives in Bradenton. "It's my daughter's little memento of coming here."

One of Hilton's relatives helped restore one of the buildings onsite.

"I've been here many times," she said, but it was her daughter's first visit. Mills finished the hook by dipping it in water to cool it off. He then presented it to the mother and daughter.

"It's beautiful!" Hilton said. Phoebe said she'd like to paint it golden.

The artisans and volunteers are what make the event tick, said Chris Brown, special events coordinator for the Manatee Village Historical Park, part of the Manatee

County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller.

"We have a wonderful lineup of volunteers," she said.

Sandy Stanford is one of those volunteers. A former floral designer, she designs and makes all of the decorations for the park.

"She basically just comes in here and works a miracle," Brown said.

Another volunteer, Ken Fink, a Bradenton snowbird from Willoughby, Ohio, was greeting visitors at the church, which is used for weddings, lectures and memorial services.

Fink, a former English high school teacher, is a lover of history.

In front of the park, volunteer Bill Howard, born and raised in Bradenton, had the tough task of directing traffic.

Parking for the event filled up early, so he needed to help people find other nearby spots.

Howard serves on the Manatee County Historical Commission, a nonprofit that helps put on the event. Next year, he'll chair the commission.

Howard was looking forward to the arrival of his family, who planned to spend the day there. "There's so much to see," he said.

"You've got to take your time going through and seeing all the crafts and all of the skills that all of these folks have," he said.

There also was an area where visitors could make their own crafts.

"My husband and I made the reindeer ornaments," said Andrea Morgan of Bradenton, who was there with her husband, Earl.

Andrea Morgan pulled out two reindeer ornaments and a card that she made.

Earl Morgan was impressed with the magician, who entertained the crowd with card tricks.

"The magician, yeah, he's a lot of fun," Andrea said. They also enjoyed the carolers and the day itself. The sun was shining and the weather was rather perfect.

"We're from Massachusetts and we wouldn't be doing this in Massachusetts today," Earl said.

Among the artisan vendors that were showing their wares, as well as demonstrating how to make their crafts, was Pat Elliott.

She was using her feetto work the spinning wheel that turns Alpaca fur into yarn.

"It's a wonderful, relaxing thing to do," she said.

Elliott lives in Owosso, Mich., and spends the winters in Palmetto. Her son owned an Alpaca ranch in Bowling Green, Ohio, which is how she got her start making yarn.

Another artisan, Jake Jacoby, was making a broom. His wife, Jackie, was weaving a basket.

"It's a hobby that we picked up as a stress reliever," Jake said.

He and his wife started weaving about 20 years ago. "She went to a basket class and she taught me," Jake said.

He also took a broom-making class. While the brooms he makes look like the broomstick that the Wicked Witch of the West flies, he designs them to be functional.

"I try to keep them very simple so that they can be relatively inexpensive and people will use them," he said.

Pat Ford was impressed with the artisans, who demonstrated jobs of long ago. "Survival was just so labor intensive," she said.

She and her husband, Jack, were visiting the Manatee Village Historical Park for the first time. The retired couple live in Hamburg, N.Y., and stay in Bradenton for five months in the winter. They bought a home here in June.

"I'm fascinated by the history of the place and the beauty and implementation of all of this," she said.

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