|Published Nov/Dec 2006
San Antonio’s missions and Festive downtown area
put plenty of sparkle in the season.
By Karen Gibson
|ed and green lights glitter in the night air and join with glowing lights cast by the luminaries (candles in sand-filled bags). Sweet and spicy smells attract attention at every corner. The sounds of Spanish guitar or angelic offerings from mission organs pour into the streets. This is San Antonio during the holiday season, where celebration is in the air and in the soul.
Missions of New Spain
When Christopher Columbus found himself in the Americas in 1492, Spain claimed the land and named it New Spain. In the 17th century, the Spanish began building forts called presidios. Franciscan missions sprang up around the forts.
In the United States, hundreds of missions dotted the Southwest, including Texas. The largest concentration of Spanish missions in Texas sat along the San Antonio River. Early San Antonio missions of wood or adobe were built in the style of Spanish Colonial architecture.
Five hundred years and several wars have led to the destruction of many Southwest missions, but six still stand in Texas. Nuestra Senora de la Pursíma Concepción del Socorro (Socorro Mission) is located near El Paso. The remaining five in San Antonio form the largest concentration of missions in North America. They make up the 12-mile San Antonio Mission Trail. Four of these missionsConcepción, San José, San Juan, and Espadaform the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.
The first mission to be built on the river in 1718-24 was Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo (300 Alamo Plaza). When Spanish soldiers took up residence in Mission San Antonio, they called it the Alamo, which means “cottonwood” in Spanish.
The Alamo became famous during the Texas Revolution of 1835-1836. American frontiersmen, like Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, joined local freedom fighters in the battle for Texas independence. General Santa Anna and his Mexican army greatly outnumbered the men at the Alamo, yet the Texans, Tejanos and Americans waged a courageous battle for 13 days in 1836. Eventually Santa Anna proved victorious, but the Alamo may be Texas’ greatest symbol of freedom. A state historic site managed by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the Alamo continues its majestic presence in downtown San Antonio, and a 40-foot Christmas tree illuminates it during the holidays.
Today, the four missionsall active churcheslend San Antonio its nickname of the “mission city.” A good place to start your tour is at the visitor’s center at Mission San José (6701 San José Drive) where trail guides and extensive information about the history and architecture is available. Admission is free to the missions, which are located near the downtown and River Walk area. Mission San José offers Mariachi Mass on Sundays, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
A melting pot of cultures
The Spanish left their mark on Texas but other European influences came from countries like Germany. Visitors also can enjoy the bold colors and food from San Antonio’s strong Mexican influence.
According to the Institute of Texan Cultures at the University of Texas, 27 different cultural and ethnic groups are responsible for making Texas a delightful melting pot of culture.
The Institute of Texan Cultures (801 S. Bowie), located south of the Alamo, displays eye-catching exhibits of these many cultures at its location in HemisFair Park. During the holiday season, visitors are treated to strolling carolers, hot chocolate and other holiday extras.
San Antonio also is known as the “fiesta city.” Festive events occur throughout the year, but the winter holidays bring a splurge of celebration starting the day after Thanksgiving.
After the Texas-size Christmas tree goes up at the Alamo, the Holiday River Parade and Lighting Ceremony (Nov. 24) brightens the River Walk with approximately 122,000 lights framing storefronts, open-air restaurants, grand hotels and foot bridges that arch over the river.
The three-mile River Walk is San Antonio’s crown jewel. A magnet for tourists and popular with locals, the walkwaylocated 20 feet below street levelis dotted with shops, restaurants and hotels.
And during the annual Fiesta de las Luminarias (Dec. 117), 2,500 luminaries light the river walk. For hundreds of years, the tradition has been to set out luminaries for the posadas, a folk drama illustrating the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem. San Antonio plays host to several of these folk dramas, including La Gran Posada, set this year for Dec. 17.
The best way to see the River Walkespecially during the holidaysis by river taxis. During the holidays, Christmas carolers float down in these flat-bottomed, open boats, and it’s not uncommon for people on the riverbanks to stop what they are doing and join the carolers in song.
The heart of the city’s Hispanic culture can be found west of the River Walk in a re-created Mexican market called El Mercado or the Market Square (514 W. Commerce St.). During Thanksgiving weekend, the Fiestas Navidenas officially starts the holidays with a lighting ceremony; the annual blessing of the animals will follow on Dec. 9. The two-square-block area is great for shopping and dining. Enjoy a tamale while you walk the bricked streets or stop by Mi Tierra Café and Bakery (218 Produce Row) for a satisfying meal or sweet.
The fun doesn’t stop with Christmas. On Dec. 30, people converge upon the Alamodome (100 Montana) for the Alamo Bowl where teams from college football’s Big 12 and Big 10 conferences will battle it out. The holiday season goes out with a bang with San Antonio’s New Year’s celebration. Presented by the San Antonio Parks Foundation, the celebration spreads out for several blocks and includes a carnival, food booths and live music on six stages. Fireworks signal the entry of a new year. For San Antonio, it’s just another fiesta in the Mission City.
Karen Gibson is a contributor from Norman, Okla.
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