A few hardy souls have made a family tradition out of spending the holidays at a state park.
By Elsa K. Simcik
When we hear Bing Crosby sing “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” most of us think of warm houses, cozy fires and feasts around the dining room table. But who says a memorable Christmas has to take place in a house? In fact, even in the classic song, the actual abode is never mentioned. The only requests are “please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree.” Really, you can have those things anywhere — at a hotel, on a boat, even on an island (well, maybe not the snow).
Joshua Lemmon, 31, of Arlington and his family haven’t spent a Christmas at home in the last five years. Instead, they opt to camp for Christmas. Why would anybody go camping in one of Texas’ coldest months of the year? Well, not many people do. That’s exactly why Joshua and his clan (including his mom, girlfriend and brother) choose to escape to Cooper Lake State Park — about 90 miles northeast of Dallas — every Christmas.
The park’s cabins, which can be hard to book during the busy season, are much easier to come by in December. And since that first year, Joshua and his family have decided they can’t have it any other way. “When I have suggested that, either due to weather or schedules, we may not be able to go in a particular year, there is an outrage, and the crew becomes mutinous at the very idea of missing a year,” he jokes.
On Christmas Eve, “we get out there as early as we can to get settled in before it gets dark and to get our firewood and so on,” says Joshua.
Just because they’re away from home doesn’t mean they forget two important holiday staples — gifts and grub. It is Christmas, after all. The Lemmon family usually heads inside their warm cabin to open presents and eat dinner. “Everyone brings whatever they want to eat, but my mother usually brings a lot of different kinds of snacks such as cookies, poppy seed bread, pumpkin bread, chips and queso, and chili,” Joshua says. “We will eat a little and then open our gifts, laugh, have fun and take our time.”
Since nobody is eager to go to bed, the family usually stays up till the wee hours of the morning, sitting outside by the campfire. “Time just flies when you are outside looking at the beautiful lake, the reflection of the moon’s light cast upon the dark waters and the wide open, star-filled Texas sky, talking and laughing, enjoying each other’s company,” he says. “It is, for sure, a moment that you do not want to end.”
Christmas on the Brazos
While regular visitors to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site in Washington don’t have the opportunity to camp overnight there (it’s day-use only), park hosts Randy and Alvina “Al” Meyers do. They’ve spent the last five Christmases either on the park’s grounds at the Barrington Living History farm or at the nearby Fanthorp Inn.
Even though they’re not usually with their extended family during the holidays, the Meyers make sure to keep in touch. “We spend Christmas Eve on the phone with family, especially grandsons Max and Alex,” Randy says. But it’s not all play for the busy hosts. “Sometimes we actually work Christmas Eve day at the park so the employees can go home early for their Christmas with their families.”
Gifts on Goose Island
Since 1995 Kelly Machicek of Port Lavaca and her family (husband Dennis, sons Adam and Keith, sister Debbie, husband Pete and their son Matthew) have been spending Christmas at Goose Island State Park in Rock-port, Texas.
They opt to bring their motor home because, as Kelly says, “Tents just would not cut it; we tried that.”
Because they’ve been at this for almost 12 years (and they also go for Thanksgiving), Kelly and her family have it down: “We cook either ham, smoked turkey or barbecue,” she says. “But what is really nice is when we start to bake our pies the day before the holiday. I make my two pumpkin pies while Debbie makes her two walnut pies. We open the doors and a couple of windows on our two campers and fill the campsites with good smells of Christmas.”
Weathering the Winter
Even though we Texans usually enjoy relatively mild winter temperatures, Christmas campers should be prepared. It can get quite cold around this time of year. Maybe that’s why none of the families we talked to brought their tents. “It is usually a little cold for tent campers, but we do have some hard-core campers that like to rough it,” says Rodney Franklin, superintendent of Cooper Lake State Park. “We see campers in all areas from time to time, but the cabins and premium shelters with all their amenities are more popular than the other areas.”
Kelly Machicek says, “A lot of times it was cold, but that never stopped us. But the most memorable Christmas was 2004, when it snowed along the coast. It started snowing late Christmas Eve and we woke to a beautiful white Christmas. All the oak tree limbs had snow and icicles. Absolutely breathtaking. Never in history had this happened, as far as I know. We played in the snow all day, making snow things — snowmen and dinosaurs or some ugly creature the boys conjured up.”
And because they had snow drifts along their canopy, they had to put up tarps around the sides with a radiator heater under the table. There, she and her family sat — their legs covered in tablecloths — playing cards. “It was awesome,” she says.
The cold weather has also affected the Lemmon family at Cooper Lake State Park. “One year, with the wind chill, it was around zero and was very cold,” Joshua Lemmon remembers.
“But we stayed out there by the fire, outside with each other. Last year it rained and again we stayed. You see, all of those things tend to not matter when you take part in something as great and as magical as this. I know it sounds crazy, but years later, we will still talk about and recall the times that there was bad weather and laugh about it. It’s almost like it adds to the experience.”
Rocking around the Park
There’s no shortage of activities during the holiday season at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site for park hosts Randy and Al Meyers. “We help with everything,” Randy says of their work at the Barrington Living History Farm. “We help set up and do activities with woodwork and cooking. We help decorate.” And at the Fanthorp Inn, “We even help with Willie and Waylon, the horses, for stagecoach rides,” he adds.
Besides Christmas week, the Meyers work the events leading up to the holiday, such as Candlelight Christmas, an annual gathering held at the Barrington Living History Farm.
Whether they’re greeting, assisting, building or leading horse rides, Randy and Al love every minute of being park hosts at Christmas time. “We are both former teachers, and we get to help educate adults and children about our time period. We love the communication and the great questions. We learn something new often. The visitors are great,” he says.
Just a few hours north at Cooper Lake State Park, the Lemmons like to stay active during their holiday visit. “We fish, hike, bike, walk on the bridges or along the shoreline,” says Joshua. “The greatest thing about the experience is that there are no electronics in the cabins: no TVs, VCRs and very limited cell phone service. So this forces us to be with each other and enjoy the fellowship. Were we in a normal setting, we would most likely eat, watch football, lie around and never really be with or talk to each other.”
Over at Goose Island, Kelly Machicek and her sister Debbie like to take a break from cooking to get in some exercise. While their famous pies are cooking, they take walks. “We have the walks timed out,” she explains. “We can go on one loop, which takes about 15 minutes, the bird trail, 20 minutes, or the longer loop around the wooded campsites, which takes about 30 to 40 minutes.”
They also have some serious Christmas card game tournaments: “We even keep notebooks with our scores in them. We are on our second book,” she says. “We write down the dates with the weather, menu and any funny or outstanding things to remember them by — just like a diary. We forget what happened and then read about them years later and laugh. We have done some really silly stuff.”
Keeping up with Traditions
Kelly believes in hauling out the holly even though they’re not at home for Christmas. “We started out with a few Christmas lights around my camper, and then started stringing them from our two camp sites,” she says. From there, the décor only grew. “A three-and-a-half-foot lighted Santa followed with a couple of candy canes and then lighted candy canes and more lights between the campsites!” she says. “Also — which I better not forget about — are our famous pink flamingos! Debbie got a set for each of us and we put them out by our satellites. Every time we go camping they make us smile!”
For Joshua Lemmon and his family, the most important tradition is being together. This was especially true in 2005, when his brother Nathan, who serves in the Army National Guard, came home from Iraq. “He had been gone for more than one year and we had not seen him in several months,” Joshua says. “Our prayers had been truly answered with his safe return and no one could wait to be reunited with him or stand beside him at the fire and in the cabins of Cooper Lake.”
It just goes to show you that you can be any place for Christmas just as long as you’ve got the right people around you. That plus some snow, mistletoe and presents make for a great holiday. Oh, and pies. Plenty of good-smelling pies.