Christmas Past: Destin celebration was once dubbed the state’s longest running tradition

Keri Holt
Elisha Marler (at left) served as the community Santa for 48 years. William T. Marler (at right) established the Community Christmas Party in 1915.

Editor’s Note: This story first ran in The Destin Log in 2007

It was a time of no roads running through Destin.

The nearest towns by boat were Niceville and Fort Walton Beach.

And "because you're all poor fishermen," says lifelong Destin resident Cyron Marler, there was only one answer for a celebratory Christmas community fellowship. Without it, the children could have quite possibly been looked over by Santa Claus. "Many of them were lucky if they got one toy for Christmas," Cyron said.

As far back as Destin's Christmas pasts are recorded, about 1915, Christmas was a time in which the entire town — all 10 families of it, give or take a few — gathered on Christmas Eve around the community Christmas tree, singing carols.

The faces behind the beard

William T. Marler, or as he was commonly known, "Uncle Billy," is credited with establishing the first Community Christmas Party in 1915. And it was he who first put on the Santa suit. They gathered in the Community Church and first school house, which was located on the Choctawhatchee Bay side, facing the water.

"It was a lot like coming together for a church get-together," said Cyron, great-grandson of "Uncle Billy." Those with a crafty skill, such as woodworkers or seamstresses, would fashion toys models of ships, dolls and stuffed animals to give the children.

Each also received a bag of fruit and candy. Tricycles and red wagons were rare treats, but with streets of sand they were strictly indoor toys. In the 1920s, the Community Church burned down, and the party moved to the home of Clement and Louise Taylor, the area's first schoolteachers.

It was also held at the First Presbyterian Church occasionally. Louise, an accomplished organist and pianist, lead the crowd in Christmas carols. No electricity ran through Destin. The Gulf Power Company brought that in 1937.

Yet the community's Christmas tree, decorated with strips of popcorn and paper chains, was lit just the same thanks to candles. Children would put on a Christmas pageant dressed as shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Girls wore white crepe paper dresses decorated with glitter.

Later in the evening, when the children sang along to Jingle Bells, Santa Claus would make his big entrance. For 13 years, "Uncle Billy" served the role as Santa until it was assumed by his son-in-law, Elisha Marler, who wore the suit for 48 consecutive years until his death.

"He was good," said lifelong Destin resident Wilhelmina "Bill" Mathews, 91, sister of Elisha Marler. "He was just about the best Santa we've had in Destin. And I'm not just saying that because he's my brother."

"He was a jolly old elf," longtime Destin resident Zack Brunson told The Log in 1987. "He could jump three feet off the floor."

A growing gathering

As the town grew, so did the Community Christmas Party. Destin Elementary School was built in the 1950s and became the regular spot for the party.

"The old lunchroom was huge," Cyron said. "It could hold several hundreds of people." With more children came the need for more toys. So in late October or early November, the Community Center would hold a fund-raising fish fry for Christmas toys.

Destin residents Betty Marler and Jerry Najarian would then buy gifts wholesale in Pensacola enough toys for about 200 children. For the Christmas Eve party, the toys were laid out on a table and arranged according to ages up to 12 years old "or to believability," Cyron said.

Until it was time to pass them out, toys were hidden behind a curtain. At the start of the party, somewhere between 5 to 5:30 p.m. (being mindful not to interfere with the church's candlelight service times), the crowd would sing carols, including Hark the Herald, Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Keeping with tradition, Jingle Bells was sung last the song which always brought forth Santa.

"They would even go so far as to have someone clamber around on the roof," said lifelong Destin resident Dewey Destin. "It was something I looked forward to every year."

It usually took four or five times to sing the song loud enough for Santa to hear it from the North Pole.

"By the end, the kids are literally screaming it," Cyron said. "Then he comes out, dances a jig, says hi, and tells all the children ‘Be good tonight and go to bed when you get home.' Sometimes he would stay for photos. Sometimes he wouldn't."

Then the curtain was pulled back for the toy distribution. Each age group's toys were covered with a sheet until their time was called. Candy and fruit bags from Jitney Jungle were included.

And the Kelly family would give out homegrown Destin oranges. Any leftover toys were donated to charity.

"When I was growing up, for some children, this was their only present for the year," Cyron said. "As I got older and the town grew, it was continued simply because of tradition."

Afterward the people went to their respective churches there were four at the time, Destin United Methodist, First Baptist, St. Andrews Episcopal and First Presbyterian for candlelight services and Christmas pageants.

Growing up and fading away

In later years, the party moved to the Community Center, averaging between 100 and 200 attendees.

"It was people who grew up in it, and they were now bringing their children and grandchildren," Cyron said. "It was one of those things We've been doing this as long as we can remember, and this is what you do before church on Christmas Eve.' "

Despite being recognized as the oldest structured tradition in the state of Florida, the last Community Christmas party was in 1993.

"The city got too big, and there just weren't enough funds," Cyron said. "I would love to still do it if we could get the money."

When Community Santa Elisha Marler passed away in Sept. 1976, the role of Santa Claus went to Dick McHarg for several years until Cyron's cousin, Kenneth Taylor, took the role in the mid 1980s. The final Santa was Lou Lacirri.

By the age of 10, Cyron, who's attended the Christmas parties all his life, was helping lead the crowd in song. By about 15, he began emceeing the event, a role he continued until the last party in 1993.

Cyron continues his emcee duties each year at the city of Destin's annual Christmas Tree Lighting, always held on the Thursday after Thanksgiving at the Destin Community Center. Each year, Cyron tells of the founding father's first Christmas celebration. And he still leads the children in "Jingle Bells."

And as always, Santa Claus can't resist the song.