Cowboy Boots & Sleigh Bells
The Christmas spirit comes alive in Texas state parks.
By Stephanie Salinas
When my mother and I entered silently through the doorway of Mission Espíritu Santo at Goliad State Park, we were embraced by the soft glow of lights surrounding the chapel. We could feel the chilly breath of November air seeping through the old wooden doors as we took our seats in the pews to listen to the choir. Their lovely harmonies, rising up through the historic stone walls, filled us with a magical Christmas spirit, even though it wasn’t even December yet.
The many cultures that formed this state now provide the ingredients for a wide array of holiday traditions that can be enjoyed at Texas state parks. From the German holiday traditions at Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site to the haunting echo of the choir at Mission Espíritu Santo in Goliad State Park, parks in every corner of the state have unique annual celebrations that ensure a great time for the entire family.
Pull on your boots, grab a jacket and follow this guide through every region of the state as we highlight events guaranteed to put you and your family in the Christmas spirit, state park-style.
This is just a sampling of what's available at parks this holiday season. For a full listing of holiday events at Texas state parks, visit www.texasstateparks.org/holidays or pick up a free copy of the “Christmas in the Parks” booklet at any state park or Texas Travel Information Center.
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area offers amazing vistas during its Christmas in the Park event. Make the climb to the top of the massive pink granite dome north of Fredericksburg and take in the view. Later in the day, join Santa for a hayride through the park and enjoy hot chocolate and cookies. (Christmas in the Park: Dec. 13)
Beneath Park Road 4 in Burnet lies one of the Hill Country’s best-kept Christmas secrets, Longhorn Cavern State Park. Every December the park hosts two separate caroling concerts. After the caroling, the park provides classic holiday food and games in the visitors center. Cavern tours are available. Last December, a woman played the piano and sang traditional Christmas songs inside the biggest room in the cave while the audience sang along. The echoes of Winter Wonderland and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas filled the room and provided us with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Afterward, we warmed ourselves by the visitors center’s huge stone fireplace, enjoying the aroma of the sizzling sausage, hot chocolate and cider, plus holiday sweets. Christmas trivia games were a jolly good time, with T-shirts and other prizes for the winners. (Caroling in the Park: Dec. 13 and 20)
One of the state’s oldest holiday traditions, begun 45 years ago by President Johnson and his wife, is the annual tree lighting at Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site. The festivities kick off just before sunset as a German folk band starts playing popular Christmas tunes, carolers begin to sing and the nativity is brought to life by local children.
Last year, LBJ’s daughter Luci Baines Johnson was the guest of honor. She reminisced about traditions her family enjoyed during the holidays and the spirit of the season.
“Each time I come I think about all the things that hundreds of you all could be doing with your loved ones, places you could be and events that you could be sharing in,” she noted. “The fact that you have come, in many cases hundreds of miles to join us here, means a tremendous amount to me. Rest assured that it would have meant even more to Mother and Daddy.”
Luci, with help from her late father, provided insight to living out the true meaning of the holiday.
“Let’s do as my father asked us 50 years ago and think not so much about what we hope to get, but what we yearn to give to those in need, because that is indeed the real joy of the season.”
After she spoke, a military veteran whom Luci spotted in the crowd flipped the switch to bring the illuminated tree to life while the crowd cheered. Serenaded by the music of the carolers, people snaked through the park’s trail to the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Along the way, we saw children and animals re-creating the classic live nativity scene. Buffalo Soldiers also set up camp along the trail, cooking over an open flame, singing songs and playing games that the original soldiers would have known during the Civil War.
At the Sauer-Beckmann farm, people lined up to see the house in full Christmas splendor. Following the German tradition, a cedar tree was placed in the middle of the parlor with real lighted candles adorning the tree branches. The cedar smell filled the house and followed us to the next room, where traditional toys were put on display for the visiting children to enjoy. The final stop at the farm was the kitchen, where period-dressed employees and volunteers offered a variety of homemade cookies to all. (Tree Lighting: Dec. 21)
Big Bend Country
The annual Christmas event at Fort Leaton State Historic Site features a traditional Mexican posada where visitors can witness Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter on the fateful night that Jesus was born. A Christmas carol concert performed by a local choir and more than 600 candlelit luminarias help bring this historic structure to life. (Posada at the Fort: Dec. 16)
In El Paso, Wyler Aerial Tramway State Park hosts a yearly Santa Christmas Hike to the top of Ranger Peak. From the top of the peak, 5,632 feet above sea level, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Once you are ready to leave, a Swiss-made gondola will take you to the base of the mountain while you enjoy the ever-changing views of the canyon below. (Santa Christmas Hike: Dec. 28)
One weekend in December, Abilene State Park sparkles with Christmas lights adorning tents, screened shelters, yurts and trailers throughout the park. All park visitors are treated to cookies and hot chocolate, and Santa tops off the evening with a surprise visit. (Fa-la-la in the Forest: Dec. 13)
Kick the holidays into high gear by cruising though a winter wonderland in the Pineywoods at Martin Creek Lake State Park. Campsites will be decorated with sparkling holiday lights, and kids will have a chance to visit with Santa. Entrance fees will be waived if an unwrapped toy is brought for donation to a local charity group. (Christmas in the Pineywoods: Dec. 5-6)
The Grinch, Santa, Mrs. Claus and Smokey Bear help celebrate Christmas at Atlanta State Park. Visitors will be able to drive through the park to view the Christmas light display for free, and campers who decorate their campsites will have their entrance fees waived. (Christmas in the Park: Dec. 12-13)
South Texas Plains
The voices of the Beeville Community Chorus resonate through Mission Espíritu Santo during Goliad State Park and Historic Site’s annual Christmas at the Mission celebration. A trail of luminarias greets you at the park’s visitors center and leads you to the doors of the old mission chapel. The choir sings a selection of sacred and secular Christmas music to create a visual and auditory Christmas experience like no other. (Christmas Concert: Dec. 6)
At Estero Llano Grande State Park you can take a holiday version of the park’s guided nighttime hike through the park with Santa. The walk follows the boardwalks and trails of the park under the nighttime sky of the Rio Grande Valley. (Night Hike with Santa: Dec. 22)
While away from their family and friends during the holidays, crew members on the Battleship Texas tried their best to make the ship feel like home. Now during the month of December, anyone can visit the Battleship Texas State Historic Site and see the ship draped in traditional lights, ornaments and decorations similar to the ones used by the sailors.
On a special night, you can visit the battleship and experience some holiday moments re-created by the crew. Visitors will be able to send a secret message to the North Pole through Morse code, make some Battleship ornaments and listen to live performances by local bands and choirs. (Yuletide Texas: Dec. 1-31; “A Sailor’s Christmas”: Dec. 13)
Prairies and Lakes
Every year, the Doctors Creek Unit at Cooper Lake State Park welcomes visitors to a park that’s decorated with Christmas lights. Families can drive through the grounds and enjoy the sights. (8th Annual Christmas in the Park: Dec. 12–13)
The fourth annual Christmas in the Park at Fairfield Lake State Park offers a variety of activities for the whole family to enjoy. A trail of lights and hayride will run through the camping area, where visitors can view the campsites covered in Christmas decorations. Classic holiday movies are shown in the dining hall with hot cocoa, wassail and cookies. Santa will also stop by to visit and have pictures taken. (4th Annual Christmas in the Park: Dec. 13)
Fanthorp Inn State Historic Site takes visitors on a journey back to the 1850s, when the inn was illuminated only with lanterns and candles. The candlelit inn will host period music, poetry readings, stagecoach rides, chuckwagon cooking, carol singing and employees dressed in period clothing. (Twilight Firelight: Nov. 29)
In La Grange, the Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Sites dedicate weekends in December to celebrating Christmas in early Texas-German fashion. Thousands of lights will lead visitors through an illuminated quarter-mile trail to the glowing Monument Hill and Kreische house. While on the trail’s hillside overlook, you can see the lights of La Grange sparkle in the distance. The house, originally the home of German immigrant H.L. Kreische, is decorated in traditional Texas-German 1850s-era Christmas decorations. Mr. and Mrs. Claus will be there, too. (Trail of Lights: Dec. 6, 12, 13, 19 and 20)
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site combines both historic and modern activities to create a unique holiday experience. In Independence Hall, there will be readings of 19th century Christmas literature, and visitors can create period crafts at the Star of the Republic Museum. There’s music in the visitors center, with displays by Texan artisans and samples of local Texas foods. Santa will be available for photos. The Barrington Living History Farm, located on the park property, hosts a Candlelight Christmas event offering a glimpse into how the holidays might have been spent in the 1850s. A candlelit tour of the Barrington farm will be offered, as well as a tour of the historic home of the last president of the Republic of Texas, Anson Jones. The farm’s quarters will also be open, with volunteers re-enacting how the people enslaved at the farm would have celebrated the season. After the tours, put on your dancing boots for live 19th century music and dancing. Bonfires, Christmas readings, an 1850s Santa Claus, musket firing, cookies and hot cider will also be included in the celebration. (Christmas on the Brazos featuring Barrington’s Candlelight Christmas: Dec. 13)
Purtis Creek State Park dedicates the first weekend of December to a Christmas light display and old-fashioned holiday fun. All campers are encouraged to decorate their campsites with Christmas lights. Smokey Bear and Santa Claus will be at the picnic pavilion for pictures, hot chocolate and a cake walk. A fee of $5 per car will be charged (instead of entrance fees) for the evening to support the construction of a new playground by the Friends of Purtis Creek group. (Christmas in Goshen: Dec. 5-6)
State Parks Ornaments
Texas state park ornaments are designed with images of the natural, cultural and historical resources of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The images are laser-etched into wood in incredible detail with a short interpretive message burned into the back of each ornament. The 2014 collection includes Big Bend Ranch State Park, the state bison herd at Caprock Canyons State Park and Independence Hall at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site.
To find out more about ordering ornaments and to see ornaments from past years, visit www.texasstateparks.org/ornament.
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