San Antonio Sparkles at Christmas

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style/Villages Edition, December 2011 •

The 175th anniversary year marking the Battle of the Alamo comes to a close in December, but San Antonio, Texas, has much more to celebrate.

   The holiday season is always special along the famed San Antonio River Walk. Nearly 1.8 million lights illuminate the trees and bridges; boatloads of joyous carolers, bell choirs, folk groups, and Latino ensembles cruise the shallow waters and fill the night air with music; and the San Antonio Rose Live Classic Country Christmas Show rocks the stage of the historic Aztec Theatre. It’s no surprise that America’s Best Online, which has created Top 10 lists since 1996, continually names San Antonio as one of the best Christmas cities.

   While the four-mile River Walk is especially festive in December, San Antonio also has a strong religious history that meshes well with the holiday spirit. Visiting the city’s five mission churches is a must-do for tourists who want to understand how this frontier settlement became the nation’s 7th largest city today and how the fight for independence impacted not only Texas history but also America’s.

The Alamo   Sightseeing in San Antonio usually begins at The Alamo, the city’s first mission, and considered Texas’ most popular tourist site. Originally named Mission San Antonio de Valero, it was established in 1718 as a home for missionaries and Native American converts. In 1836, The Alamo was the site where 189 heroes including Jim Bowie, David Crockett, and William B. Travis battled over 2,000 Mexican troops. Although the Alamo fell to General Santa Anna’s army after 13 days, the deaths of its defenders symbolize courage and the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of Liberty. The Alamo is designated as hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty, and, therefore, interior photos are not allowed.

   Four other Spanish Colonial missions founded in the 1700s form the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, and it’s the best place to explore the city’s roots and to understand Spain’s influence on the American Southwest. Established by the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church, the missions feature diverse architecture and beautiful art. Start at Mission San José where a visitors’ center presents an overview about the missions’ vital roles to the area’s growth.

Mission San Jose   Take time to explore the grounds of Mission San José, built in 1768 and known as the “Queen of the Missions.” The extraordinary Baroque architecture makes this the most ornate of all the missions. Be sure to walk to the rear of the mission compound to see the first and oldest working grist mill in Texas. Take time to examine the legendary “Rose Window,” which showcases the high level of craftsmanship by Spanish artisans. The Rose Window is said to be one of the best examples of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in the U.S. and tour guides will share several interesting legends about its creation. Mission San José also hosts a special Christmas mariachi concert and mass.

T   he other missions in the National Historic Park — Concepción, San Juan, and Espada — are not as ornate as Mission San Jose, but each has a unique history that led to San Antonio’s post-colonial growth. The colorful pageantry of culture, art, food, and celebrations that San Antonio is known for emerged from the blending of Spanish and Indian traditions that occurred as part of mission life.
Currently, visitors can drive from mission to mission or hike or bike along the Mission Trail. In 2013, the $358 million Mission Reach project will extend San Antonio’s River Walk south to include the four Spanish colonial missions. Eventually, the River Walk will extend 15 miles from the missions south of the city to Brackenbridge Park to the north.

   After the holidays, San Antonio takes a break to do annual maintenance on the flowing corridor that connects the lively downtown area to the exquisite San Antonio Museum of Art, the revitalized 128-year-old Pearl Brewery, and the King William Historic District. During the first week in January, the city’s Downtown Operations Departments drains the San Antonio River Walk so make sure to plan your visit accordingly. Once the water starts flowing again, the annual Mud Festival, which includes a Mud Pie Ball and arts and crafts, show takes place.

If you go:

   San Antonio has many wonderful hotels, but I find it’s worth the extra dollars to stay near the River Walk. Restaurants, entertainment, and landmarks are all within walking distance or just a water-taxi ride away.

   Get a bird’s eye view of the city from the Tower of the Americas, which was built for the 1968 World’s Fair. The observation deck is a great place to watch the twinkling lights below.

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