Every day as the sun sinks low, nearing the surface of our blue green waters, tourists and locals alike emerge from the shade of the Jamaican talls and Australian pines, to take part in something quite unique to the island of Key West - the setting sun.
Specifically, the sun setting is not unique to our island – but the beloved tradition of the Sunset Celebration certainly is. In Key West, we “do sunset” like no other place in the world. And yes, in this particular location it is both a noun and a verb.
Two hours before the sun goes down the gathering for Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Docks in Key West begins. The Sunset Celebration is a festival with a serving of circus on the side. Complete with cats jumping through blazing fire-rings, tight rope walkers, the double jointed squeezing into small spaces, and those juggling sharp objects. Their feats inspire gasps and laughs from onlookers, and encourage tips from all those entertained as performers don’t receive any other kind of formal payment for their work.
The atmosphere at Sunset is electric. Live music, local artists, and food vendors join this eclectic mix of street performers, and together conjure a bit of magic to precede the main event of the night.
Then, at exactly the right time the sun begins her final performance of the day. In a slow motion dance of expression, the sky is painted in a brilliant array of colors - oranges, reds, pinks, and purples. All souls turn and face west.
As the last sliver of sun disappears into the watery horizon, the crowd erupts in cheers and clapping, marking the end of another day in the islands.
The view is breathtaking, and once you see it for yourself, it’s easy to understand why people from around the world come to Key West to witness the daily spectacle.
The origin of Sunset Celebration is as colorful as the sunset itself.
As the story goes, the celebratory aspect of Sunset began in the 1940s with Tennessee Williams, the famous American playwright that lived in Key West for several decades. Tennessee was known for enjoying the island sunsets with regularity. Many evenings he’d spend at Mallory Square clapping, with gin in hand, as the sun set for the day.
In the 1960s the gathering expanded to dozens of hippies and gypsies making the daily journey down to the dock before sunset. Here they would reportedly get high on LSD, thoroughly enjoy the colorful show and watch what they said was Atlantis rising out of the sea in the clouds at sunset.
When the 70s rolled around and gave way to the 80s, the daily celebration of the sun setting had evolved into the vendor flea market type of celebration, akin to that of today. However, at that time vending on the docks was not legal. Local shop owners began to complain about the dock market to city officials, at which point the City of Key West stepped in.
The threat to the long-standing tradition of sunset celebration in Key West spurred a group of locals to take action. In 1984, thanks to the grassroot efforts of these citizens the Sunset Celebration became an official and permanent fixture of Key West when they formed the Key West Cultural Preservation Society, Inc., a non-profit organization.
So why do we actually celebrate the regular event of the sun setting in Key West every night?
It’s no secret that Key West, and those of us that call it home have always marched to our own beat. This quirky little island town is a welcome departure from the ordinary for most, and has been a wonderfully weird place for a long, long time. Well, before you or I ever set foot on the island.
This rock has been home to pirates and presidents – beloved authors and artists – treasure hunters and drag queens.
In Key West, we value the unique, invite all to “come as you are”, we drink our café con leche all day, and yes we love our island full of “free-range” chickens. Thank you very much.
We are a place that has danced and twirled through time, managing to stay, at least in some ways, a world apart from the rest.
Sure, it’s true that science says watching the sunset can have a positive impact on us. Calming our minds, reducing stress, improving mood and quality of sleep. And of course it carries the inherent promise of a fresh start for tomorrow.
But the truth is, even without an official Sunset Celebration, we islanders would still be celebrating this regular yet miraculous everyday event.
Celebrating the sunset in the Keys just makes sense. And here it just seems easier to have the good sense to pay attention to these details - the seemingly small things that become big things when we look back at life. Maybe it’s a skill honed by slowing down, or, maybe it’s because when you are surrounded by so much ocean and beauty you can just see things a little more clearly.
But whatever the reason, Sunset truly is a magical experience here, and captures the beauty of nature, and the island-spirit of our little town. And that, my sunset seeking friend, is always worth celebrating.
See you at Sunset.
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We recently took a trip out to Stock Island to visit renowned wood artist Kasidy Fritts of Washed Up Key West.
How did you get started and what inspired you to blend local tropical hardwoods to create such stunning pieces?
You could say I was raised in a woodshop. When I was a kid in Pennsylvania my mom and dad converted an old barn out back into their own woodshop and they made a lot of small farmhouse-style trinkets and decorations. Fast forward to 2013 shortly after my first daughter was born I made my wife a table as a thank you and realized I really liked doing it.