Charleston rarely sees snow, but locals have found fun ways to create cold weather customs nonetheless. Here, we’ll highlight New Years and Watch Night traditions, blizzards and cold snaps from seasons past, fun January activities and restaurants with roaring hearths to keep cozy and warm, and even a few chances to see snow and ice skate this winter season in the Lowcountry.
New Year’s Eve
Celebrating the birth of the new year is an ancient tradition practiced across the globe. Charlestonians in the past celebrated with fireworks, toasts, fancy dinners, and the general merriment that remain a part of the holiday still today. Several restaurants and venues offer special ticketed events to ring in the new year, although the fireworks at Patriots Point are visible for free from the parking decks and rooftop bars downtown.
To highlight just a few of this year’s festive options:
9th annual Charleston Wonderland at Festival Hall, Beaufain Street: https://www.charlestonwonderland.com featuring, “a premium all-inclusive bar, amazing performers, incredible live bands and DJs, cirque performers and variety acts, state-of-the-art A/V and so much more. Inside the meticulously styled space, guests will enjoy a non-stop entertainment lineup we welcome in the new year . Everything from a champagne toast with Charleston’s largest balloon drop at midnight, to photo booths, specialty cigar lounges and so many more surprises.”
The Yorktown Countdown at Patriots Point, with fireworks and family friendly fun. “Historic airplanes are repositioned on the top deck to make way for 15,000-square-feet of heated tent space. Inside, party-goers enjoy live music, DJs, a top-shelf full-service bar, light hors d’oeuvres, and so much more.”
The New Year’s Eve Fur Ball on Daniel Island is a great way to give back at the end of the year, with proceeds going to the Berkeley County Animal Center. Tickets include live music, party favors, two drink tickets, hors d’eouvres, and a midnight champagne toast. eventbrite.com/e/the-nye-furball-a-totally-pawsome-80s-prom-benefitting-shelter-animals-tickets-476569561387?aff=ebdssbdestsearch
For something different, there’s the Polar Bear Plunge on Kiawah on the January 1st to get some exercise and start those resolutions off right. The free event begins at 11:45 am; “Plunge into the New Year at Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s Polar Bear Plunge. Come and celebrate new beginnings with us as we gather on Kiawah’s beach, just in front of the hotel to take a dip into The Atlantic. All participants must bring their own towel to this event.” Click here for details: https://kiawahresort.com/event/polar-bear-plunge/
Celebrating on New Year’s Eve, Watch Night is a solemn but joyful and important African American tradition with roots in South Carolina in the hopeful era of Emancipation. The origins of Watch Night stretch back to the eighteenth century as a Methodist practice created by Methodism founder John Wesley. Also called Covenant Renewal services, the night might include private, silent prayer or preaching, and was “conserved a time for recommitment, the unity of the congregation was renewed, the covenant of Christendom was renewed, and folks testified and sang”, according to Rev. Cynthia Wilson.
As we noted in last year’s NYE podcast, Charleston’s “Watch Night commemorates New Year’s Eve 1863 when the enslaved Gullah Geechee people “began to emerge from slavery as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect” during the American Civil War. Heather Hodges of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor explains, “we want all Americans to remember that January 1st meant significantly more than the coming of a new year. In 1863, it also meant the beginning of the end of centuries of bondage.” Watch Night service usually has sacred music, prayers, and speeches of reconciliation.” Visit https://charlestonempireproperties.com/ringing-in-the-new-year-and-the-holiday-season-in-charleston/ to learn more about traditional Lowcountry New Year’s day food ways and Watch Night.
To experience Watch Night 2023, visit Morris Brown AME Church this NYE. Their page invites guests to “join us for an annual daytime Watch Night and Emancipation Day Celebration to bring in the new year reflecting on the importance of Freedom’s Eve, as a community. On December 31, 1862, Gullah Geechee people gathered in sacred spaces and places of worship to await the new year that would signal the end of slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on New Year’s Day! Register on Eventbrite TODAY for in-person or virtual attendance! Our Freedom’s Eve Charleston Celebration will take place at Morris Brown AME Church, hosted by Dr. Jessica Berry, and features performances by the McIntosh County Shouters of Townsend, GA, Aunt Pearlie Sue and the Gullah Kinfolk of Beaufort, SC, Deninufay Dance Co. of Charleston, SC, Master Storyteller Lillian Grant-Baptiste of Savannah, GA.”
Historic Snow Events
Charleston winters are typically mild, with highs from December to February averaging 60 degrees and lows around 40. As a coastal community, however, the weather fluctuates greatly. Christmases past have measured 75 degree Fahrenheit, but have also been as cold as 40 degrees as a high, and lows dipping into the high teens. Flakes fall on occasion, even if they don’t tend to stick.
John L.E.W. Shecut wrote in 1819: “Snow: though not uncommon, is seldom observed to any extant in our maritime districts. There are instances, however, of extraordinary fall in Charleston, particularly the years 1790, 1702, 1800, 1809 and 1818. They seldom happen earlier than December, or later than February, and cover the soil not more than tow or three inches, with the exception that in 1800, which covered the earth six or eight inches in Charleston.” In 1849, the city had a “cold snap, as pinching in its effects as anything we had during the winter”, it was only 37 degrees as a high, and “a slight sprinkling of snow made its appearance in the air, but the wind was so high that the minute fleecy flakes were kept in the air until they melted.”
The Lowcountry has seen a handful of significant winter storms with snow, and they have always made front page news. Memorable events occurred in 1893, 1899’s “Great Blizzard”, 1960, 1973, the winter after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and recently, in 2018, when the city saw nearly six inches of snow and black ice that lingered for a week.
Seeing Snow and Skating
Snow remains a Lowcountry rarity, so Charleston Place Hotel creates a magical winter experience each year, but it’s not just for guests. Locals and visitors alike are welcomed to the Holiday Headquarters where each evening from November 25th to December 31st, the hotel transforms into “a European holiday bazaars, with more than 139 decorated trees in the hallways and courtyards, a 40-foot tree in Market Street Circle, and a holiday train in the grand lobby.” Each night at 6, 7, and 8pm, “snow will magically fall on Market Street circle, blanketing the holiday trees and grand décor in a lovely sheet of winter white. Come witness the rare occurrence of snow in the Holy City”, by prebooking here: https://charlestonplace.com/experiences/#!/e/sold-out-let-it-snow-daily-6pm-7pm-8pm-48ade377
Perhaps because of newcomers to the Lowcountry who miss their cold weather traditions, ice skating is making a surprising rise in popularity. There are three “pop-up rinks” this winter.
Credit One Stadium on Daniel Island, open Thursday and Friday 5-10pm and longer on weekends, where a reasonable $10 ticket includes skate rental and an hour-long skating session. (Tickets here: https://creditonestadium.com) After skating, Post Courier notes, “There’s a Santa’s Sweet Shoppe snack bar on the concourse for purchasing holiday treats, along with one up above with a great view of the rink serving up coffee and hot chocolate, plain or spiked with peppermint schnapps or Baileys Irish Cream. There’s a little something for the whole family, in other words. s’mores were a must after an hour of laps around the rink.”
Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina in Mount Pleasant has skating Thursday through Sunday from 3pm to 8pm until February 5th, where tickets include skates, skate time, and access to all sorts of fun winter activities: “To help warm up to Charleston’s dropping temperatures, the Winter Wonderland will offer cozy rink side fireplaces for rent, delicious hot chocolate and gourmet s’mores kits designed to be cooked over the surrounding area fire pits. A donut-making station will also fill hungry elves in addition to snacks. Fun is designed for the whole family with jump castles and corn hole.” For tickets and more information, visit https://www.charlestonharborresort.com/amenities.htm . Bert’s Place on Folly Beach will have a rink operating the week of Christmas.
And of course, the best place to skate year-round on real ice is the Carolina Ice Palace in North Charleston, which has a full NHL sized rink utilized by visitors for free skating, for lessons, and for hockey. The Palace has a restaurant and sports bar (The Penalty Box), a pro shop, game room, and ample parking. https://carolinaicepalace.com. Carolina Ice Palace is also the official practice facility of the South Carolina Stingrays professional hockey team.
Ways to Keep Warm
Some restaurants keep guests cozy with fires in traditional historic hearths or with courtyard fireplaces, while others warm up visitors with fun holiday drinks.
Frannie and the Fox in the Hotel Emmeline in Charleston’s Market https://hotelemeline.com/frannie-and-the-fox has a beautiful garden courtyard with a large roaring hearth. They invite “the adventure seeking, campfire loving, culinary enthusiast in us all” to experience where “wood burning concept of shareable dishes in a warm and engaging environment anytime.”
Poogan’s Porch (which is open Christmas Eve and also has Christmas feasts to go on with preorder) is located at 72 Queen Street in a historic Victorian house. Eating at Poogan’s is like feasting in a historic private dining room, with tables mingled in large historic rooms with fireplaces and antique heart pine floors. https://www.poogansporch.com
Zero George in historic Ansonrough neighborhood is a perfect place for a staycation, or for a special evening out to dinner. The two hundred year old house-turned-inn has a brick patio with heaters and fire pits, and the interior features fireplaces with historic mantel pieces, decked for the holidays. Zero George features special events and meals for New Year’s Eve as well.
Poe’s Tavern on Sullivans Island is another cozy place to enjoy food and drinks by the fire. In the winter, the beach is quiet and perfect for a cool stroll, followed by a visit to Poe’s hearth.
- John L.E.W. Shecut. Shecut’s Medical and Philosophical Essays. Charlesotn: A.E. Miller, 1819.
- Charleston Courier, “Cold Weather”, 19 February 1849, pg. 2.
- John Dabney. The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking: a celebration of the foods, history, and romance handed down from England, Africa, the Caribbean, France, Germany, and Scotland. Cumberland House Press, 2010.