History of San Antonio

3 traditions every San Antonian must do during the holiday season

3 traditions every San Antonian must do during the holiday season

Windcrest Christmas Light-Up
Windcrest Light Up has brightened up the holidays for more than 60 years Courtesy/City of Windcrest
Author Ellen Riojas Clark at Gran Tamalada at Market Square.
Author Ellen Riojas Clark helps tamale newbies at the Gran Tamalada. Courtesy/Michael Cirlos/Centro San Antonio
La Gran Posada at San Fernando Cathedral
La Gran Posada at San Fernando Cathedral. Courtesy/Archdiocese of San Antonio
Windcrest Christmas Light-Up
Author Ellen Riojas Clark at Gran Tamalada at Market Square.
La Gran Posada at San Fernando Cathedral

San Antonio is rich in cultural traditions, and it’s no different during the holiday season. Many of us have our reliable tamale place, holiday market, or lighting event that we make a point to attend each year.

But there are a handful of special traditions that truly to stand out. These are things that, for one reason or another, symbolize the spirit of San Antonio during this time of year.

Las Posadas
Las Posadas (Spanish for “the inns”) are one such event. Each year, Christians gather to reenact Mary and Joseph’s challenging journey to Bethlehem just before the birth of Jesus.

More traditional observances of Las Posadas date back to Spanish colonial times, and have been known to take place over nine days when celebrated in Mexico and Latin America. Other contemporary renditions feature a one-night candlelight procession.

More established local posadas take place at San Fernando Cathedral and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower. Sometimes, congregants walk from a nearby site to a church. Other times, the “journey” simply takes place inside the church.

The tradition of La Gran Posada even reaches neighborhoods, where a family hosts a miniature version of the event for one night. Here, neighborhood youngsters and adults portray pilgrims, going house to house in search of a place to stay for the evening.

A person at each house says they cannot accommodate the pilgrims (there’s no room at the inn). The travelers continue until they get to the chosen house for the night — an inn where Mary and Joseph can find safe sanctuary. The celebration then unfolds with carols, food, and children smashing piñatas.

For as many posadas events as there are in San Antonio, there are just as festivities that celebrate tamales. Tamal-making is both an art form and a labor of love, with techniques passed down through generations of families.

Many families take time buying the supplies and ingredients required for making tamales. Some families make a daylong home celebration, also known as a tamalada, complete with music.

One event, La Gran Tamalada, which takes place at Market Square, invites visitors to take a shot at making tamales — or at least do their best to learn. A small tamalada has also been held at the Witte Museum the last few years.

Even plays about tamales have found success in the Alamo City. Performances of Las Nuevas Tamaleras, Alicia Mena’s heartwarming comedic play about the spirits of tamaleras who help first-timers get past their tamale-making struggles, are always popular in San Antonio.

It's no Christmas miracle that tamales are so popular in San Antonio. After all, the tamal is not just food, it’s a source of community pride.

Dazzling light displays
Then there are Christmas lights.

As pop culture touchstones like Clark Griswold and The Great Christmas Light Fight prove, it's easy to go overboard when it comes to illuminating one's home in wondrous (and often expensive) ways.

Which is why it's often easier to instead visit sprawling, elaborate light displays such as Santa’s Ranch in Hays County. This self-guided driving tour winds through a mile of Hill Country roads decorated with glittering, sometimes animated, displays

While small neighborhoods and special venues arrange fantastic Christmas light exhibits, it’s rare that a whole town organizes a coordinated holiday program in friendly competition. The town of Windcrest has been holding its official Light Up for 61 years now. The event is one of the well-known of its kind in the San Antonio area.

The Light Up formally kicks off with a tree-lighting at City Hall and Santa Claus arriving via a fire engine. Windcrest’s Santa is really “Santa Jim” — resident Jim Flinn who uses song and storytelling while playing the jolly ol’ elf.

Residents across Windcrest spend days, even weeks, decorating their houses, yards, sidewalks, and mailboxes, usually around a single theme. This year’s theme is “A Hometown Christmas.” A contest then determines top entries in different categories, such as best block or cul-de-sac, as well as most creative or religious displays. Grab a free map from the volunteer fire station on Midcrown Drive, next to City Hall.

From mid-December through New Year’s Eve, the Light Up is a massive undertaking by resident volunteers, the city’s volunteer fire department and Economic Development Corp., and local civic groups such as the Windcrest Women’s Club.

Tamales, Christmas lights, embarking on a spiritual journey — these are things that holiday memories are made of.