Staff and volunteers participate in the reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Photo by Lauren Cecil

The Texas State Parks system marks its 100th anniversary this year. With 89 parks, natural areas, and historic sites to choose from, visitors can experience all kinds of outdoor activities. Each month, we’re highlighting one these activities based on the season and special occasions around the state.

Stepping into Fort Leaton State Historic Site comes as close to time travel as you can get. The restored compound, set on 23 acres along the Rio Grande, brings the circa 1800s Texas-Mexico border area to life—including the holiday tradition of La Posada.

Posada is a Spanish word for inn, and at Christmastime it refers to a procession or play reenacting the biblical story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. This tradition started in 16th-century Mexico and remains popular in cities and towns along the southern border of the state, with musicians and costumed children singing and going from house to house on Christmas Eve.

On Dec. 16, Fort Leaton invites visitors to experience the site’s annual Posada, one that park superintendent Tom Forwood points out makes the most of the historic setting.

Enclosed within the outer walls are 40 original rooms—including a blacksmith shop, granary, family parlor, dining room, kitchen, servant’s quarters, and a trading office around a large courtyard—that together form one of the largest historic adobe structures in Texas.

Date: Dec. 16
Address: FM 170 East in Presidio
Hours: 6 to 8 p.m. Guided tours occur every 30 minutes starting at 6:30 p.m.
Park Entrance Fee: $5 for adults, 12 years and under free

While stories conflict about the original builder and owner of the property, the name comes from Ben Leaton, a Chihuahua Trail trader who met widow Juana Pedrasa. She may or may not have already had ownership of the land and structures before meeting Leaton (again, stories conflict). They turned the property into a trading post, shelter for travelers, and home, where they lived with their three children until his death in 1851. The site changed hands over the years and fell in and out of disuse until the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department acquired the site in 1967 and spent several years on restoration work. Fort Leaton opened to the public in 1978. The Posada tradition started in the 1990s.

According to Forwood, Fort Leaton puts its own spin on the Posada. “We start [it] off with a processional, with a group of visitors inside the fort and a group outside the walls singing back and forth on the different parts,” he says. Costumed volunteers and staff, including those dressed as Joseph and Mary, the latter on a burro, lead visitors into the grounds and different buildings, singing songs along the way.

“Everyone gets a program, so you can follow along,” says Lauren Cecil, a member of the board of the Friends of Big Bend Ranch State Park, which helps stage the event. “The songs tell the story of Mary and Joseph looking for shelter. The Fort is just the perfect place because it was originally a shelter and home.  It is so spiritual and magical that you feel as if you’re part of it instead of just watching.”

Inside, fresh tamales and pastries from local providers await along with staff and volunteers in period dress who talk about the traditional making of these treats. In the courtyard, a local mariachi band plays while children take turns strike a piñata, both part of a typical posada.

More than 1,000 luminarias, candles (in this case, electric) nestled in sand-filled paper bags, line the walls of the fort and pathways outside its walls.

A young girl wearing glasses and a Presidio Texas T-shirt holds two luminarias and smiles for the camera.

Luminarias add a magical element to the evening festivities at the Posada. Photo by Lauren Cecil.

“Once everyone has gone through, it is usually right at sunset,” Cecil says. “Looking at the luminarias and the stars above, you don’t know where one stops and the other begins. You can really have a moment.”

If you’re unable to attend this weekend, Fort Leaton is open daily (except Christmas Day) from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (except for special events like the Posada). Visitors can wander the grounds on their own or take a guided tour (offered daily November through April). Outside the walls, the grounds include a picnic area and nature trail, and the site serves as the western entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park in Presidio County (the eastern entrance is Barton Warnock Visitor Center just outside Terlingua). Big Bend Ranch offers trails to hike, bike, or ride horses; access to the Rio Grande; stargazing in the exceptionally dark skies; and primitive camping or beds in an historic bunkhouse.

Forwood advises that Posada visitors be prepared for the weather, which can be warm or very chilly. “Come learn a bit about the park and traditions across the border,” he says. “The communities of Presidio on this side and Ojinaga across the border are very tied together.”

The holiday event attracts community members from nearby areas and tourists from afar. “It’s very symbolic,” Cecil says. “People have traveled from Marfa or Alpine and tourists have made a pilgrimage, so the story is relatable. You have people from all walks of life.”

The March 2024 cover of Texas Highways Magazine

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