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Lights, Menorahs and Tamales: The Holidays in San Antonio are a Culturally Rich, Festive and Feast-Worthy Time of Year

David Gonzalez |

San Antonio, TX – San Antonio is often considered one of the most welcoming and festive cities in the U.S. During the holidays this spirit is all-the-more evident with numerous celebrations from early November through the first week of January, many of which are free to the public. 

A unique aspect of San Antonio during the holidays is the city’s culturally rich roots, which range from Mexico and Spain to Germany and beyond, and can be experienced in many forms throughout the destination. From learning how to make authentic tamales and participating in a traditional celebration of Las Posadas to watching the annual Chanukah boat parade; from a memorable performance of The Nutcracker to an unforgettable mariachi musical concert by world-renowned Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the holidays in the Alamo City are a great time to experience the diversity of the community.

Visually, San Antonio literally shines; more than 2,000 traditional Mexican luminarias line the River Walk, SeaWorld features more than 9 million lights – more than anywhere else in Texas – and oversized and lit-up Christmas trees are all over town.

More than 45,000 hotel rooms are available throughout the city making finding a hotel a breeze. Whether guests are looking for a hotel on the River Walk, in the colorful Downtown or in the Hill Country, it’s easy to find through special offers from the Marriott Portfolio of brands, Hyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk and the Eilan Hotel & Spa at VisitSanAntonio.com/holidays.

Add to this mild winter temperatures averaging in the 60s and the city stands out as an ideal destination for the entire family for a holiday getaway.

Here is a round-up of some of the key unique events happening this year, organized by category:

Photos: http://media.visitsanantonio.com/Images/Editorial-Use/Events/Holiday

FEAST:

Tamales and More Tamales

A shared heritage tradition with northern Mexico, the holidays in San Antonio go hand-in-hand with tamale season. Each year, locals and visitors alike can learn the secrets of making a perfect tamale at La Gran Tamalada, taking place this year on December 8 at historic Market Square. While most people have no trouble eating tamales, the art of actually making them takes patience and some skills, and with this free event, participants get a hands-on opportunity to learn about the ingredients, recipes and cooking methods used in making this culturally iconic dish. Additionally, on December 2, Sunday Masa – A Holiday Tamales Extravaganza’s second annual celebration will offer tamales for sale, a wide array of local holiday vendors and plenty of pan dulce and hot chocolate.

Glühwein and German Treats with the Beethoven Maennerchor

Beethoven Maennerchor is a slice of Germany in the heart of Texas and one of the oldest German singing societies in the state, founded in 1867 with the goal of preserving German song, music and language. Each year, the organization holds Kristkindlmarkt, an arts and crafts fair featuring a wide array of hand-made items from local artisans, along with fresh split pea soup, gourmet German baked goods, traditional Glühwein and live performances from the organization’s choirs.

MUSIC AND DANCE:

Ballet San Antonio’s The Nutcracker

Each year, Ballet San Antonio puts on an unforgettable and world-class performance of The Nutcracker. Founded in 1985, Ballet San Antonio began as a regional dance company and today is a thriving organization serving over 40,000 people annually. The company includes 22 professional dancers who are recruited from all over the globe. This year’s performances, from November 23 through December 2, will feature live music from the San Antonio Symphony. 

Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza

Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza (pictured, right) is a week-long festival in San Antonio featuring concerts by world-renowned mariachi musicians. This is the largest and longest-running mariachi music festival in Texas, with a 24-consecutive-year run since its founding in 1995. More than a dozen events will take place this year, including a special Mariachi Mass at Mission San Jose (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) on November 11, and the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza Concert on November 18, which will highlight award-winning mariachi groups and vocalists along with the world-famous Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

FESTIVALS, MARKETS AND CEREMONIES:

Chanukah in San Antonio

Launched in 1998 by two local rabbis, Chanukah on the River began with forty people and one river barge and has grown to be one of the largest Jewish events in the state of Texas.  Festivities include the Chanukah Boat Parade with interactive entertainment, a menorah lighting and a live concert. Additionally, Pearl, an area in San Antonio brimming with gourmet restaurants, unique shops and picturesque green spaces, will host the fourth annual Chanukah menorah lighting celebration in partnership with Young & Jewish San Antonio (YJSA) on December 3.  The menorah at Pearl will be lit each evening of Chanukah. This event is free and open to the public.

Ford Fiesta de las Luminarias

San Antonio’s River Walk (pictured, below right) lights up – literally – during the holidays with more than 2,000 luminarias, a traditional Mexican Christmas lantern consisting of a candle set in sand inside a small paper bag. The centuries-old tradition takes place this year December 2-4, 9-11 and 16-18.

Posada at Pearl

Inspired by the Mexican and Latin American tradition of Las Posadas (see a link to last year’s event, at top) – a nine-day Christmas celebration centered on the ritual re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s quest to find lodging in Bethlehem – Pearl will host its second annual traditional Posada on December 19.  The community is welcomed to join and “become” pilgrims traveling by candlelight.  The evening will include children’s crafts, piñatas and custom Mexican treats of buñuelos, tamales and Mexican hot chocolate.  This event is free and open to the public.

Travis Park Annual Christmas Tree Lighting

The city’s annual tree lighting ceremony will take place November 23 starting at 3 p.m. and is free and open to the public. More than 250,000 holiday lights will be on display and a 55-foot tree will feature over 10,000 environmentally-friendly LED lights and custom-made ornaments. Throughout the month of December, there will be a wide array of free programming at Travis Park including holiday-themed movies, photos with Santa, face painting, food trucks, caroling and more.

NATURAL ATTRACTIONS:

Christmas at the Caverns

Natural Bridge Caverns features the largest known commercial caverns in Texas. During the holidays, visitors can experience “Caroling in the Caverns (pictured, right),” where professional choirs from around the state will sing carols inside the caverns and, with the cave’s the natural acoustics, voices will resonate 180 feet below (the deepest part of the area open for touring). Dates are December 1-2, 8-9, 15-16 and 22-23.

THEME PARKS:

Morgan’s Wonderland

Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first theme park designed with special needs individuals in mind, will feature “A Wonderland Christmas” with special holiday entertainment on nine evenings from November 23 through December 23. Highlights will include visits with Santa, a petting zoo, tree lighting ceremonies, complimentary cookies and hot chocolate, Christmas caricatures, skating on a simulated ice rink and Christmas decorations throughout the 25-acre park.

SeaWorld San Antonio

From November 17 through January 6, guests visiting SeaWorld San Antonio will experience special rates and unique holiday programming including a float parade, visits from Santa and a commemoration of the arrival of the Three Wise Men on January 1-6. Additionally, the park will display more than nine million lights covering 250 acres — the largest Christmas light display in Texas.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas

During the holidays, Six Flags Fiesta Texas is transformed with millions of colorful twinkling lights. The seasonal “Holiday in the Park” program brings special additions to the regular roster of rides and attractions, including the Holiday Express train ride, a caroling Christmas Tree Family and a live nativity show. Holiday in the Park is offered select days from November 17 through January 6.