LIVE OAK — This year the Christmas on the Square arts and crafts show and festival celebrates its 35th anniversary in downtown Live Oak.
It’s grown from a Friday event to Saturday and now three days. One of the most beloved festivals in the South, Christmas on the Square features more than 200 vendors with food, arts and crafts of all kinds, a car show, entertainment, farm displays, fire pits with exotic designs, jewelry, toys, handmade jewelry and furniture, ceramics, cosmetics, jams and jellies and so much more. The latest additions to Christmas on the Square are an evening fun run, Christmas tree lightings, more entertainment, additional days and so much more is expected to increase the numbers of families who come to look and enjoy the festivities but also to purchase many items from vendors. Folks also come just to see who is there and often meet up with those they know and love but rarely see throughout the year. It’s like a big Christmas family reunion. From 50 vendors to more than 300 now, there is definitely something to please all ages.
Christmas on the Square, one of the largest Christmas festivals in North Florida or South Georgia, is well known across America with more than 20,000 attending each year. Today the festival is successfully overseen by the Suwannee County Chamber of Commerce and many dedicated volunteers.
Christmas on the Square features entertainment including local dance schools, high school bands, gymnasts, solo and duo artists from all across North Florida and South Georgia including Suwannee County performing on the Millennium Park stage, arts and crafts booths with almost anything you could wish for on sale, food concession booths with a magnitude of festival food available for sale, antique and restored autos and trucks on display, farm displays, face-painting and more.
The story of how it all started is seldom heard. Here’s how it all began because of a simple love for Live Oak and the need to bring people together to celebrate life in this wonderful small town in North Florida’s Suwannee County. When Stanley and Betty Johnson moved back to Live Oak in 1974, they began making crafts at home and traveled to area craft shows on weekends. This led to them becoming interested in creating a festival locally.
Betty and Stanley approached Susan Lamb who worked at the Suwannee Democrat, next door to their crafts store business, and who visited their store often, and as a crafter, shared their desire to bring a festival to Live Oak. These three began forming ideas for a local crafts’ show to replace the then-defunct Tobacco Festival in downtown. They asked Edwin McCook, a cousin of the Johnsons who was president of the local Jaycees at that time, to be part of the plan. A plan of action was formed that some thought was a pipe dream.
The Chamber would be involved by accepting calls from potential vendors who wanted to attend this first event. These four decided all the money raised would be used to purchase decorations for downtown Live Oak and make the city beautiful during the Christmas season in coming years. And, most importantly, local charities would have first chance at the charitable vendor sites to help Suwannee County residents with the funds they raised. Some said it would never work. Many were thrilled at this opportunity.
Stanley met with then-Sheriff Robert Leonard and the Live Oak City Council to ask for permission to close Wilbur Street next to the courthouse for craft spaces. The nearly 7-foot tall sheriff told Stanley it would be OK, but he had to leave room for deputies to drive in with anyone arrested in the county during the festival as the jail was at the back of the courthouse behind the festival street at that time. Stanley, a law enforcement officer himself, agreed with no hesitation. By the end of November 1984, the group had sold spaces for 50 vendors. The event was held, it was a huge success and the rest is, as they say, history. Success achieved. The Jaycees served as a vehicle to deposit the festival proceeds while members volunteered at the event. The Chamber’s workload was small this first event, but that all changed in the years to come.
Now, just look at where the local community and its Chamber of Commerce has taken this renowned festival. Not only did this plan work, but some 2,000 people attended the first Christmas on the Square. And look at it now. Thousands make an annual pilgrimage for the spectacular event and its excitement.
In the beginning, Stanley and Edwin personally drew out all the chalk lines for each and every vendor spot in parking spaces next to the courthouse during freezing and sometimes summer like weather. The four founders borrowed radios to keep up with each other and handle situations during the day, policed the vendors to make sure everything was hand-made during the first several festivals. They also dealt with sleepy vendors anxious to get to their site in spite of almost running over folks at 5 a.m. in the dark opening day. Everyone survived in spite of a few close calls.
Those who held the annual Christmas parade on Friday night agreed to move the parade to Saturday night, make it a lighted parade and combine the two activities. It was a hit with the public. Over years the event has gained huge amounts of attention, drawings tens of thousands of people to Live Oak’s downtown area the first weekend in December each year and bringing thousands upon thousands of dollars to the community during this one-day event.
Stanley and Betty, Edwin and Susan, not wanting to hold back the process of the festival they founded, decided they had accomplished their goal of bringing a wonderful Christmas festival to the courthouse square and beyond. They each stepped aside slowly after the first few years, allowing spots for new volunteers to step in and bring in new blood, new ideas building a community ownership and increasing the volunteerism with the festival to ensure the festival is a continued success. Now, these founders are a proud part of the crowd each year as they visit the festival and see with great pride the community event that was their idea, a product of them and their families’ blood, sweat and hard work and which reflects the pride of the entire community of Suwannee County and the Suwannee County Chamber of Commerce. They couldn’t be prouder of how entire families have become intensely involved in this festival and how so many Suwannee County community minded citizens have worked to make this wonderful Christmas festival a work of love and dedication.
Stanley volunteered for many years lining up floats for the Christmas parade each year. After his state retirement as a law enforcement officer, Stanley worked for Daniels Funeral Home a few years and now enjoys visiting the Gulf of Mexico, being with his grandchildren and wife Betty. Betty worked for 12 years with Friedman’s Jewelers in Lake City and managed a new jewelry store in Live Oak before retiring and helping to raise their grandchildren. After 30 years with the Suwannee Democrat and 11 years as its editor, Susan retired in 2007. After a year off, she has handled media relations for the past 12 years at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park while also writing for local magazines. Edwin McCook now works with Suwannee River Water Management District, feeling blessed to work where he can enjoy the beautiful North Florida area of natural springs, walking and running trails, bicycling events and the beautiful and famed Suwannee River which brings so many people to the Live Oak area.
Merry Christmas on the Square everyone!