I have a confession to make: I only got to sit in Santa Claus’ lap maybe two or three times as a kid. Santa at Central Park Mall. You remember? Where Park North Plaza is now? Back in the day — the late 1970s and early 1980s — Central was the place to be during the holidays.
The jolly ol’ elf sat in his winter wonderland near one of the mall fountains, not far from the carousel. My plan for visiting him was pretty basic: I’d first die of boredom while the adults shopped for clothes or appliances at Sears or Dillard’s. Then it was my turn to have fun at all of the toy stores.
Finally, it was time to give my rather lengthy wishlist to St. Nick. The wishlist was sourced from the JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, Sears, and Dillard’s Christmas catalogs that I’d begin perusing upon arrival at my childhood home typically in late September.
And my wishlist was legit.
It seems nowadays we take for granted the ubiquitous mall Santa. (Of course, because the guy can go around the world in a matter of hours, it only makes sense that he can show up anywhere these days during the holiday season.)
But waxing nostalgic over my younger days, as well as rewatching classic holiday movies and television shows this year, got me to thinking about the other holiday traditions around San Antonio.
Lighting up downtown
There exists an order to properly celebrating Christmas, et. al in Alamo City. The day after Thanksgiving, make the journey to Alamo Plaza for the Christmas tree lighting, something that has been happening practically every year for decades. (Though now the “official” tree stands in Travis Park, much to the chagrin of many San Antonians.)
The holiday river parade, too, is a huge Thanksgiving weekend tradition that has been taking place nearly 40 years. Even today, the holiday parade and tree-lighting are ideal ways to cap off a chaotic Black Friday of shopping in downtown.
Eats and treats
When it comes eats and treats for the holidays, you can’t beat the potent combination of tamales and cookies.
My grandmother attempted to make tamales at home only once during my childhood. I must’ve been 7 or 8 at the time, and it was an all-day affair, with ingredients and equipment filling every corner of the kitchen. I’d like to remember that the tamale experiment at the Casa Ortiz went fairly well, but my grandmother never did that again.
Nowdays, I stick to tried-and-true tamal-makers. Local spots, such as Delicious Tamales, are renowned and offer tasty tamales for practically any occasion. But there’s something about places such as Adelita Tamales and Tortilla Factory, on the near Northwest Side, that feels authentically San Antonio.
People near and far flock to Adelita everyday in search of homestyle, budget-priced tacos, tortillas, tortilla chips and, when the occasion calls for it, tamales and buñuelos. The old-school atmosphere at Adelita remains, and you can see the workers make everything. (The restaurant will also provide masa for whomever is the tamal-maker in your home.)
Unfortunately, I lack the time for baking anything at home, whether that's tamales or cookies. When it comes to Christmas treats, I turn to The Cookie Lady. A local small business, The Cookie Lady — not far from my childhood neighborhood — has stayed humble and straightforward. Though it crafts decorated cookies according to every season, the holiday offerings just seem to have that extra something.
From field trip to holiday must-hit
Of course, San Antonio holiday traditions would not be complete without seeing a ballet performance of The Nutcracker with music provided by the San Antonio Symphony.
This has long been a San Antonio holiday celebration, and for those of us who grew up in the city, December always meant a field trip to The Nutcracker. (“Field trip” are two favorite words for virtually any child, after all.)
Yet, the symphony’s decades-long participation in The Nutcracker came to a shocking halt in 2017 when contractual talks between the symphony and Ballet San Antonio broke down. Eventually both groups got back together for this year’s performances.
And I for one am glad the reconciled. After all, the San Antonio Symphony supporting the The Nutcracker is a lasting symbol of a San Antonio Christmas — just like old-fashioned tamales and cookies, downtown's epic holiday festivities, and Santa clad in a cowboy hat and boots.