State parks and historic sites celebrate the season with lights, food and song.
By Carol Flake Chapman
As the season to be jolly approaches, sometimes Christmas may be too much with us. Peace and goodwill take a backseat as crowds throng to the malls and children clamor for the latest computer games. But for those looking for places to celebrate the Christmas spirit in quieter, simpler ways, there are joyous holiday events across Texas in our state parks and historic sites that hearken back to the roots of our diverse culture and remarkable history. More than a dozen events celebrate traditions from our Hispanic, German, frontier and more recent American heritage.
This is Christmas illuminated by starlight or the soft glow of candlelight, lanterns, or luminarias, scented with freshly cut juniper trees and holly boughs, and serenaded by the sound of voices raised in song and laughter echoing off old stone walls. Adults and children alike can join in the thrill of singing carols in a cavern that once served as a church; riding in a horse-pulled wagon as bells jingle all the way; listening to cowboy songs and poems around a campfire; meeting Santa on a mountaintop; watching the traditional Mexican Christmas procession, La Posada, enacted in an old Western fort; or savoring tea and pastries in a historic adobe mansion bedecked with period decorations.
Imagine traveling back in time to the holiday season as it was observed a century and a half ago in a little settlement on the Brazos River, where the last president of the Republic of Texas retired from his patriotic duties to raise cotton. At Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site’s Candlelight Christmas celebration, you’ll be welcomed warmly at the Barrington Living History Farm, just like the friends and neighbors of Anson Jones, who presided over the Republic of Texas before it became a state. From early afternoon until well into the evening, “there’s never a dull moment,” as park interpreter Janice Campbell says.
Although the park staff and volunteers used to decorate the Jones home prior to the event, Campbell says, “we realized it would be a lot more fun to have our visitors help us.” And so, guests join in making and setting out the simple decorations of holly and pyracantha sprigs, ribbons and paper ornaments. Don’t expect a Christmas tree, though, as that tradition came to the state by way of German settlers.
Guests may also be lured into watching and sampling the cooking that goes on all afternoon in the farm’s two kitchens. Undoubtedly, there will be an old-fashioned taffy pull. Baked creations this year may include a One-Two-Three-Four Cake, a poor-man’s pound cake that comes from a historic book compiled by Lydia Maria Child, whom Campbell dubs “the Martha Stewart of the mid-19th century.”
Meanwhile, children gather to play games and make period toys and keepsakes, including noisemakers called whiz-buzzers, composed of nothing more than buttons and string. Instead of popping hog bladders by tossing them in a fire pit, an activity children enjoyed in the old days, the park staff substitutes balloons, which make just as satisfying a bang. For quieter fun, the young folks gather in the parlor, crowding around Janice Campbell for a reading of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (the original title of Clement Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Park interpreter Mark Sanders will bring out his fiddle to provide the melodic motivation for musical chairs.
Before Sanders has a chance to catch his breath, it will be time to head to the barn to bring up the oxen, Bud and Abe, their horns entwined with holly, as well as the big Percherons, Waylon and Willie, sporting bells on their harnesses, for an impromptu wagon-pulling parade. Waylon and Willie also pull the stagecoach at the Fanthorp Inn State Historic Site, which celebrates its own Christmas event, the Twilight-Firelight, in late November. If you happen to attend that event, you might recognize Sanders as the bearded inn owner Henry Fanthorp, one of the historical characters who is portrayed in the inn’s celebration.
As the sun goes down at the Jones homestead, things shift to party mode for adults, with polka dancing on the front porch. But after the music stops, there is time to just listen to the quiet. Park staffer Bill Irwin recalls: “There are times when the mist comes up from the Brazos while you’re there on the front porch, and you can hear the coyotes howling in the distance, and you feel like you’ve really stepped back in time. Those are the moments that make what I do worthwhile.”
If you’re still yearning for a Christ-mas tree and lots of twinkling lights, head for the Trail of Lights and the Early German Christmas at the Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery state historic sites. Volunteers from the Friends of Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery have been putting on these events for 20 years now, so they’ve had time to perfect them. For example, they’ve kept adding lights to the trail that leads up to the high bluff on the south side of the Colorado River, with its dazzling view of the competing lights of La Grange in the distance. Inside the historic stone Kreische home, arrayed in early German Christmas finery, including a Christmas tree, volunteers offer up old-fashioned baked goodies and musical good cheer. Listening to a cappella choirs in this setting is special, says volunteer Jeanette Huelsebusch. “You’ll fall in love with the Kreische house,” she says. “The acoustics are great with those stone walls. Choirs love it because they sound so good there.”
Choirs also love performing an annual Christmas concert in Mission Espíritu Santo at Goliad State Park, says staffer Leah Huth. The chapel was built with acoustics in mind, she says, and “it has a unique sound that you don’t get in modern auditoriums.” And, of course, the concert offers the chance to view the fresh strands of yaupon holly woven around the altar and the chapel’s newly restored wall fabric, originally painted by Franciscan monks in geometric and floral designs.
Longhorn Cavern also has great acoustics, as singers have discovered in one of the newer park Christmas traditions, Caroling in the Cave. The festivities begin and end “topside,” as park superintendent Kaye Barlow calls park headquarters. Visitors participate in games and drawings for door prizes and listen to “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” read in a booming voice by mustachioed park geologist Al Gerow, whom Barlow refers to as the “oldest living formation in the cave.” Park staff wearing reindeer antlers lead the guests as they carol their way down to the cavern’s Indian Council Room, which has served in the past as a den for prehistoric carnivores, a campsite for Comanche Indians, an outlaw hangout, a dance hall and a church. The limestone walls, with their crystallized calcite formations, resemble the marble walls of a cathedral as lantern light flickers over sparkling striations. And the acoustics for a cappella concerts in the chamber are “to die for,” says Barlow.
For an equally unusual place to absorb the Christmas spirit, head to the Battleship Texas, anchored near the San Jacinto Battleground. Staff and volunteers decorate the ship for the holidays the way its crew once did, with boughs of holly adorning the bulkheads and lights strung from the bow to the masts and down to the stern. “It was so beautiful when they decorated the berths with whatever they had on hand, whether it was ribbons and tinsel or paper chains and cutouts,” says staffer Susan Smyer. The staff also lovingly reproduced a handmade Christmas village, complete with a porch and mailbox, created by crew members in one of the marine spaces using corrugated siding.
For an earlier look at how members of our armed services observed Christmas, head out to Fort Richardson, where the officers’ quarters are decorated in 1870s frontier fashion, with a Victorian flair of ribbons and bows. Head further west to Fort Leaton, near the border town of Presidio, and to the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas for celebrations that gather traditions from both sides of the border. At Fort Leaton, luminarias flicker against the walls of the old ruined fort, as local schoolchildren enact the Posada, going from window to window, as though from inn to inn, in search of shelter for Mary and Joseph. At Barton Warnock, the Christmas on the Border festivities include folklorico dancing, a visit from Santa, and a caroling-amid-the-cacti concert by the community choir from nearby Terlingua.
In El Paso, you can choose from high tea or a visit with Santa high on a mountaintop. At Wyler Aerial Tramway, you can take the tram up to Ranger Peak, where Santa will be waiting on the observation deck at 5,632 feet. The ticket dispatcher radios ahead with the names of the children, who are amazed when Santa calls them by name as they arrive. At the Magoffin Home, you’ll join volunteers from the Casa Magoffin Compañeros for an elegant afternoon of finger food and beverages served amid heirloom decorations displayed around the 19-room adobe mansion.
Period decorations adorn many of the state’s other historic homes, including the Starr Family Home State Historic Site, where you can enjoy a gourmet dinner by candlelight, served by volunteers dressed in Victorian garb. At Fulton Mansion, fresh garlands add fragrant accents to handmade Victorian-era decorations such as glass-blown ornaments and a tree made of goose feathers. For more Victoriana, buy a ticket for the Texas State Railroad, which will pull out of the Palestine station for its special Victorian Christmas journey with Santa and passengers in period costumes. At Varner-Hogg Plantation, costumed interpreters will lead tours, carriage rides, craft demonstrations around the grounds and waltzing on the front porch of the plantation house.
For something a little more rugged and outdoorsy, you can carol around campfires at Lake Mineral Wells and Cedar Hill state parks or join hayrides at Brazos Bend and Stephen F. Austin state parks. As you gaze up at the stars, listening to cowboys singing Christmas songs not far from where the Goodnight Loving Trail began, or enjoy a picnic under the moss-draped oaks of the Brazos river bottom, where Stephen F. Austin brought the first 300 families to found a colony, you might think to yourself — only in Texas.
You might count your blessings as you contemplate the notion that there are times when an entire state can seem like one big extended family.