Twinkling lights on dark, chilly nights have long loomed large in our collective imagination. The concept has roots in ancient midwinter festivals; it eventually developed into Victorian Christmas fantasies of crackling Yule logs, candles, and lighted evergreen trees. While most modern Texans may be a bit short on snow and sleigh bells, we continue to find joy in holiday lights and the celebratory seasonal activities that accompany them.
While the major metro areas of the state boast massive, glitzy extravaganzas enjoyed by throngs of urban merrymakers, many small towns create their own special versions of holiday cheer, away from city crowds and traffic.
Ranging from homegrown festivities developed and maintained by dedicated local volunteers to professional productions, these events capture the magic and spirit of the season. In addition to the shared enthusiasm for lights, lights, and more lights, visitors can also expect live music, food, opportunities to stroll, children’s activities, and horse-drawn rides. Oh, and pride, lots of local pride. The residents hope you’ll come and see for yourself.
College Station, Nov. 8–Dec. 30, 2019
If you’re looking for a fantasy Christmas city, Santa’s Wonderland in College Station fits the bill. Each holiday season, a 72-acre, Western-style village comes to life—teeming with activities, live music, food vendors, shops, and more than 3 million lights. This annual attraction, which began 22 years ago as a simple drive-thru display, has evolved into a “Texas Christmas experience.” The centerpiece is a mile-long hayride or carriage ride on a trail of holiday- and Texas-themed light exhibits. There are also train rides; a mechanical bull; cozy fire-pits; a dancing, Stetson-wearing snowman named Marshall Frostbite; a food village and dining hall serving barbecue, s’mores, hot cocoa, and chuckwagon peach cobbler; and a section covered in real snow thanks to the modern miracle of snow machines.
Hayrides cost $46.95 for adults, $41.95 for children, and nothing for kids under 2. Carriage rides cost $50.95 per person. Off-site parking with shuttle service is free; reserved on-site parking costs $10.95-$24.95. 18898 SH 6, College Station. 979-690-7212; santas-wonderland.com
Johnson City, Nov. 29, 2019-Jan. 5, 2020
Every year since 1989 on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Johnson City becomes the “twinkliest town in the Hill Country.” The hamlet inaugurates the season with fireworks, a street dance, and the ceremonial lighting of the historic Blanco County Courthouse. The following night is the Lighted Hooves and Wheels Parade, where Santa and Mrs. Claus lead as many as 60 lighted floats and The Clickety Cloggers dance down the street. Each successive night, pedestrians stroll the closed-off streets around the courthouse, City Park, and Pedernales Electric Company, festooned with 2.3 million lights in total. Local food stalls, horse-drawn carriages, and antique tractor-pulled hayrides enhance this sweet experience. Event chairwoman Chrystal Tamillo stresses that Lights Spectacular—celebrating its 30th year—continues as a completely volunteer endeavor, providing “not just Christmas fun, but also support for area nonprofits.”
No admission fee for walking/enjoying the lights; carriage rides cost $15 per person, tractor rides are by donation. 101 E. Pecan Drive, Johnson City. 830-868-7684; lightsspectacular.com
Wonderland of Lights
Marshall, Nov. 27–Dec. 29, 2019
The centerpiece of Marshall’s 33-year tradition of holiday festivities is the old Harrison County Courthouse, one of the state’s more flamboyant public buildings with its Beaux Arts columns, pink base, and a yellow dome topped by clocks and Lady Justice. The merriment begins the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with a ceremonial lighting of the 1901 courthouse, completely covered in lights. Celebrations continue daily (except Mondays) with an outdoor ice-skating rink, horse-drawn carriage and wagon rides, a Santa’s Village of tiny houses offering children’s crafts and cookies, a vintage carousel, trackless train rides, and free music in nearby Telegraph Park. Special events occur each Saturday, including a Wassail Walk where local shops serve spicy holiday drinks and compete for the best recipe, a lighted Christmas parade, a story fest, and an outdoor Christmas market.
No charge for admission; tickets for various activities range from $3 to $12.50. Downtown Marshall near Harrison County Courthouse, 200 W. Houston St. 903-702-7777; wonderlandoflights.com
Town Lighting/Pony Express Ride
Gruene, Nov. 12, 2019–Jan. 1, 2020
On the Guadalupe River, the Gruene Historic District starts holiday celebrations early in November with Christmas Market Days, photo ops with the black-hatted Cowboy Kringle, and the Thanksgiving Day 5K Turkey Trot. The holiday highlight, though, is the 18th annual Pony Express Ride from New Braunfels to Gruene on Dec. 7, bearing a letter from the governor read aloud, followed by Cowboy Kringle riding in on horseback to flip the switch that lights up the town. “Cowboy Kringle is quickly becoming a Texas holiday icon, and the Pony Express reminds us of our historic roots and times gone by,” says Crystal Kinman of Gruene Historic District. Festivities continue through New Year’s Day, including a Jingle Bell Run/Walk and concerts by such musical performers as Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison.
Photo packages with Cowboy Kringle are $15-$130; registration fees for runs and ticket prices for musical events vary. Gruene Historic District, Gruene Road, New Braunfels. 830-629-5077; gruenetexas.com/holidays.php
Magical Winter Lights
La Marque, Nov. 15, 2019–Jan. 5, 2020
For the past five years, La Marque, a small mainland town near Galveston Bay, has hosted one of the state’s more elaborate holiday lights displays. This mostly nontraditional extravaganza reflects various aspects of the region’s cultural diversity. A professional production team led by Houston resident Yusi An transforms 20 acres of Gulf Greyhound Park into eight themed sections, ranging from Disney to dinosaurs to the Houston skyline. Six million lights illuminate more than 100 giant Chinese lantern structures built in Zigong, China, home to historic lantern festivals. The lanterns can reach heights of 40 to 60 feet, and some features are interactive, like the giant walkway of multihued lighted rectangles that change color as you step on them. Carnival rides, food stalls, music, and twice-nightly performances by Chinese acrobats add to the experience.
Admission costs $22 for adults, $13 for children, and is free for children under 4. Parking costs $5, cash only. Gulf Greyhound Park, 1000 FM 2004, La Marque. magicalwinterlights.com