If you grew up in Texas, it is likely that you have been exposed to a wide variety of uniquely Southern holiday traditions over the years. Whether you mix pecans into every recipe, cannot celebrate the holidays without indulging in tamales like there is no tomorrow or your Christmas tree lights are shaped like chili peppers, there is no shortage of southern charm and fun in our great state.
If you, like many of our readers, have lived in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex for a long time, you have probably driven through the Plano neighborhood of Deerfield and waited in the long line of cars to see the spectacular light displays that the neighborhood’s residents put on year after year. Maybe you have a photo taken every year with the famous NorthPark Center Santa Claus or you bundle up for a skate around the huge Christmas tree at Galleria Dallas. Some of us cannot wait for the annual shopping trip to the Christmas Decorator’s Warehouse in Arlington or miss out on the spectacular lights during Frisco’s Christmas in the Square. Shoppers line up early for the annual ‘Neath the Wreath Junior League Holiday Gift Market in Plano and Christmas in Cowtown in Fort Worth. While these treasured North Texas traditions should never be broken, there are so many great places to take a good, old-fashioned road trip with your family to experience the unparalleled joy of the holiday season.
Let there be light!
One of the most popular and undeniably entertaining Christmas traditions to take part in with family members of all ages involves driving around with a warm cup of hot cocoa to look at all of the glowing Christmas lights. If your family can handle confined car time together and does not mind a few hours on I-35, take a drive through the impressive hill country and head to Austin, the capital of Texas, for the annual Trail of Lights extravaganza. This year, the event will take place Dec. 8-22. What began in 1965 as the “Yule Fest,” which was a gift to the city of Austin from Austin Parks and Recreation Department, is now a community-wide celebration of the unique spirit of Austin. Not only does the Trail of Lights feature extravagant light displays, but the event also hosts a Fun Run and features live entertainment by local performers on the Community Performance Stage. In a city that is known for music, recreation and talent, this holiday festival is something that is not to be missed. The event features fun, themed nights, including University of Texas Night (for you Longhorn fans out there) and Heroes’ Night. Over the years, the Austin Trail of Lights has gained a Christmas town, a house for guests to visit Santa, a train and so much more. This year’s annual Fun Run will take place Dec. 5 from 7-10 p.m.
If you choose to travel a little further south, you may find yourself in the exciting city of San Antonio. Home to the Alamo, the River Walk and a plethora of historical sites, San Antonio is also recognized for hosting the Ford Holiday River Parade and Lighting Ceremony. This annual tradition features a one-hour parade down the San Antonio River Walk with tons of highly decorated floats that serve as means of transportation for celebrities, music and lavish costumes. Also taking place in San Antonio during the season is the Ford Holiday Boat Caroling event. Within the two and a half mile stretch of the downtown River Walk area, four or five boats float on the river every evening, showcasing a different group performing live Christmas Carols every hour. More than 185 schools, churches, companies and civic choral groups participate annually. The sounds of the season fill the night while visitors stroll alongside the river or listen to the music from the patio of an outdoor restaurant.
In College Station, the hometown of Texas A&M University (whoop!), travelers can take a short, six-mile drive outside of town to the bright and joyous world of Santa’s Wonderland. This holiday town is the largest Christmas attraction in the entire state of Texas! It sits on 37 acres of land and boasts a winding trail of lights that is more than one mile long. It is estimated that there are more than 3 million LED lights on display. Open through Jan. 3, 2016, visitors can grab a seat on a hayride or horse-drawn carriage to journey beneath the millions of colorful lights that are synchronized to popular Christmas tunes. Santa’s Wonderland visitors can annually enjoy live entertainment, legendary Texas music, food and shopping. After you experience the lights, make sure you stop and see Santa, ride the Wonderland Express, visit the winery and take photos beneath the amazing snow machine. If you go there once, it is sure to become a tradition. The joyful atmosphere mixed with the excitement of the approaching holiday makes Santa’s Wonderland a very merry place to spend an evening under the stars.
Do you consider yourself a semi-professional wine taster? If you like visiting wineries, taste testing and exploring some of the most beautiful geography in the state, Fredericksburg is a promising travel destination for your group. This city, which is also famous for its peaches, is home to more than 30 vineyards and wineries and has achieved national recognition for their award-winning wines. Every year, this small city hosts the Light the Night Christmas Parade. For this year’s event, taking place Dec. 4, it is anticipated that more than 130 entries, including bands, parade floats and animals will participate in the event. Families can shop for Christmas gifts, take part in the AfterGlow event (featuring food and wine booths) as well as attend the Christmas Night Skies Star Gazing Party. New to the event this year is the Holiday Sharing Village, where the exhibitors are local nonprofit groups that will come together to offer a unique variety of retail items. This gives guests the opportunity to learn about and support important missions.
Open through Jan. 2, 2016, Santa’s Ranch in San Marcos (a lot closer than the North Pole) is the perfect place to take the kids to drive through more than a mile of winding country roads. There are countless Christmas lights, animated displays and delicious treats like homemade hot cocoa, kettle corn and snacks to enjoy during your adventure.
Recognize the reason for the season.
If you want to take part in something with a holiday flair that does not require driving through a display of bright, sparkly lights, make the short drive outside of Dallas to the city of Waxahachie. At the city’s uniquely popular Bethlehem Revisited event, visitors step back in time more than 2,000 years and walk the realistic looking streets of Bethlehem. Much like Joseph and Mary did on the night of Jesus’ birth, families can stroll among the streets of the city, encountering merchants, food vendors, craftsmen and other citizens. Live sheep, camels and donkeys even make an appearance during the reenacted journey to the site of the nativity. The demonstration offers a live look at what the night of Jesus’ birth would have been like. While you are visiting Waxahachie’s live version of Bethlehem, explore Herod’s Court and enjoy the nightly parade, featuring the three kings who brought their treasure for Jesus. There are not many events designed in a way that children of all ages can learn about and see firsthand what Jesus’ time and life would have really been like. This year, the highly anticipated Bethlehem Revisited event will take place Dec. 4-6 and Dec. 11-13 from 6-9 p.m. Admission is free and performances are repeated every 30 minutes. This is a powerful way to remember the real meaning of Christmas without having to travel far from home.
It is a Texas thing.
If your family enjoys visiting over-the-top and extravagant destinations, you know that Grapevine is home to one of the best places to marvel at larger than life holiday decorations and participate in festive activities for both children and adults. Did you know that the city of Grapevine is recognized as the Christmas Capital of Texas? The popular Gaylord Texan is known for its Texas-size winter wonderland and events, and this year, families can take part in the 12th Annual Lone Star Christmas extravaganza. This ongoing event features more than 2 million holiday lights, 2 million pounds of hand-carved ice, 2 million pounds of real Texas snow, a 54-foot Christmas tree, magical miniature train sets, 15-foot nutcrackers, more than 2,300 decorated wreaths, 5,600 feet of garland and 15,000 holiday ornaments. Take those numbers in for a second! The popular ICE! exhibit, complete with 14,000 square feet of 2 million pounds of ice sculptures, celebrates “Christmas Around the World” at a chilling nine degrees! Families can take part in the Elf on the Shelf® Scavenger Hunt or Santa’s Wild Workshop Snow Tubing. Whether you choose to decorate a gingerbread house or indulge in some milk and cookies with Mrs. Claus, you will definitely leave the resort filled with more than enough holiday cheer to spread around.
The city of Waco, known as home to the Baylor Bears and Hawaiian Falls Water Park, hosts the annual Waco Wonderland event. It features eight days of food, fun and holiday cheer! From Dec. 5-12, the community gathers in Downtown Heritage Square to marvel at more than 20,000 Christmas lights, fireworks, unique holiday entertainment and a variety of delicious food trucks. Grab your skates and mittens and prepare for an exciting time! The event hosts a holiday parade (on Dec. 12 this year) and even has a skating rink.
Whether your family decides to tear open Christmas presents in the comfort of your home or you plan to load up the van to travel across Texas and experience the holidays with a southern twist, enjoy the time off and see something new. Our great state has so many exciting and holiday-themed things to enjoy, and it would be a shame to miss out on the fun! Grab a warm cup of cocoa and cozy up by the fire with your map and vacation planner. Let’s hit the road! Merry Christmas!