As the holiday season approaches, a favorite family activity is to hop in the car and head somewhere festive — where Christmas carols are in the air and cheerful decorations transform ordinary surroundings into winter wonderlands. In communities big and small, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — yes, even in early November. To help you plan your family excursions, here’s a short list of spirited destinations, from Marble Falls to Galveston. Some with vintage themes, others with dazzling displays. All are well suited for an overnight stay.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Waxahachie has become well-known for one of its unique Christmas traditions. Over two weekends (Dec. 4-6 and 11-13), visitors can step back in time to visit Bethlehem. The city streets become a “city within a city,” with two acres devoted to Bethlehem Revisited, a nativity re-enactment complete with merchants, tradesmen, food vendors, shepherds and other citizens — plus live animals like sheep, donkeys and camels.
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Tour times are every half hour from 6-9 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.
During the first weekend (Dec. 5-6), Waxahachie also hosts its Candlelight Home Tour. The Ellis County Courthouse and three homes are decked in holiday decor and opened for visitors. Tours are self-guided 2-8 p.m. Tickets are $15, $12 in advance and free for children younger than 12.
Dec. 4-6, Galveston’s Dickens on The Strand devotes a dozen city blocks to recreating 19th-century London — giving the sense that you’ve landed in A Christmas Carol.
Extra holiday activities include a Christmas Market and Gift Show (Dec 4-5) and a Waxahachie Community Theater performance of the comedy Happy Hollandaise (Dec 11-13). Find more event details at www.waxahachiecvb.com.
God Rest Ye, Merry Folks
What’s not to love about the combination of Texas beach, Christmas cheer and Victorian London? Enjoy all three Dec. 4-6 at Dickens on The Strand, Galveston’s one-of-a-kind annual celebration that devotes a dozen city blocks to recreating 19th-century London — giving the sense that you’ve landed in a scene from A Christmas Carol.
Daily activities include live entertainment on five stages, performances by roving musicians and jugglers, and variety shows and circus acts. Vendors in costume sell everything from authentic period clothing and jewelry to Christmas decor and food. Fezziwig’s Beer Hall opens Friday evening and, on Saturday, Galveston’s Tall Ship Elissa docks in the harbor. Two descendants of Dickens himself, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley and Jane Dickens Monk, make appearances throughout the weekend. New this year is a focus on children’s activities, with Oliver’s Alley children’s area and a young writer’s workshop and contest.
Many participants and locals dress in costume, adding another dimension of realism to the scene. Whether you throw together a few things from the closet, rent a costume or have one custom-made for the weekend, be sure to dress up. If you’re in costume, tickets are $8. Otherwise, the range is $7-$9 for kids ages 7-12 and $13-$15 for adults. See the full schedule at www.galvestonhistory.org/events
Walking in a Winter Wonderland
The Walkway of Lights in Marble Falls began like most small town stories. A few people gathered to kick off the holiday season by lighting a cottonwood tree near City Hall. The town didn’t see much of a crowd, as most Main Street businesses closed at 5 p.m. As the city grew, a civic leader promoted his vision for “a place that would dazzle the children, amaze the teens and awe the adults,” and in 1991, volunteers put together the first Walkway of Lights, now a large tourist attraction. Located along the shoreline of Lake Marble Falls, the holiday display drapes more than two million lights on 230 sculptures that range from festive and patriotic and whimsical.
The fun begins with a parade Nov. 20 and the walkway is open 6-10 p.m. daily until New Year’s Day. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. (Note that in the event of bad weather, the walkway will be closed when the ground is wet.)
Drive 3-4 hours to Shreveport for a getaway on the Louisiana Holiday Trail of Lights — with eight cities participating along I-20 east or I-49 to the south.
A small-town getaway isn’t complete without a meal at a diner. Marble Falls has plenty of dining options, but locals recommend The Real New Orleans Style Restaurant for its authentic Louisiana cooking and Blue Bonnet Cafe for its fresh-baked pies. http://walkwayoflightstx.com.
Let the Good Times Roll
It’s easy to forget that Louisiana is closer than much of the rest of our own state. A three- or four-hour car trip will get you to Shreveport for a weekend getaway. The Louisiana Holiday Trail of Lights includes eight cities along two routes: traveling on I-20 east or following I-49 to the south. Each of the cities has its own charms, and most add fireworks, arts and crafts, and plentiful food options to the mix.
Even if you only go as far as the Shreveport-Bossier City area, you’ll find a full schedule. Christmas in Roseland transforms the American Rose Center in Greenwood into a winter wonderland with thousands of lights and displays Nov. 27-Dec. 20. A giant Christmas card program gives local schools a 4x8-foot piece of plywood and creative license to decorate a card to the community. www.rose.org/our-gardens/christmas-in-roseland.
In Bossier City, holiday offerings include performances by the Shreveport Symphony’s Holiday Pops concert on Nov. 19 and 20, the antebellum-style Logan Mansion’s Holiday tour on Nov. 20, and a Rockets Over the Red fireworks show Nov. 28.
East on I-20, Minden embraces its heritage with a German-style Fasching Festival. The town’s history dates to the late 1800s when settlers founded a Germantown colony. German food, music and crafts fill the streets on Nov. 22. Kids can visit the German Santa, adults taste offerings at the beer garden and history buffs enjoy free tours at the local museum. This weekend also kicks off the opening of the city’s drive-through light display, which includes a 100-plus collection of life-size nutcrackers. Plan your trip at http://holidaytrailoflights.com.
No Place like Home
North of Houston, the annual Home for the Holidays celebration in Old Town Spring begins on the first weekend of November. Every Saturday and Sunday through Christmas Eve, visitors enjoy holiday lights and entertainment from strolling musicians, school choirs, dance performances and other local groups. Santa and Mrs. Claus are available at Santa’s Workshop for visits and photos ($8), and costumed Disney characters hang out at several downtown shops.
For a small donation, ride the Be An Angel train on a tour of Old Town Spring. Proceeds benefit the Be An Angel Fund, which provides resources for families of special needs children in the Houston area. The 40-foot miniature engine takes passengers on tours 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Special weekend events are scheduled as well. Nov. 21, the 20-foot Christmas tree is lit at dusk and everyone can join in singing carols. Nov. 28 and Dec. 5 and 12 feature breakfasts with Santa ($5), and Dec. 12, there’s a popular Ugly Sweater Contest.
Activity times vary, but most are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Details and an interactive map of downtown businesses are available at http://oldtownspring.com. Call the Old Town Spring Preservation League at 281-353-9310 with questions.
Celebrate the holidays in a truly Texan way by enjoying the warm weather, spicy food, and culturally blended traditions in San Antonio. The festivities begin after dark on Nov. 27 with the 34th annual Ford Holiday River Parade, which includes 26 illuminated floats on a four-mile route down the San Antonio River Walk. Parade participants wear elaborate costumes, bands perform and local celebrities make appearances. Tickets are organized into sections along the river and must be purchased in advance online, as this event draws a quarter-million visitors each year.
Along the River Walk, there is something scheduled daily. After dark, an estimated 1.8 million lights adorn trees, bridges, and many businesses. Carolers perform nightly from 6:15 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 2-20 as boats carry local church and choir groups through downtown. On weekends, the River Walk is lit with luminarias at dusk. See more than 3,000 traditional Mexican Christmas lanterns, lit each night by Boy Scouts and other youth volunteers.
While in San Antonio, shop for unique gifts from local artisans at the International Peace Market (Nov. 27-28) or enjoy a moonlight train ride during Santa’s Railroad Wonderland at the Texas Transportation Museum (Dec. 5-26).
Tamales are a holiday staple for many families and San Antonio takes them to an art form. On Dec. 5, more than 40 tamale makers sell them at Tamales at Pearl, and visitors can learn to make them from scratch at La Tamalada at the Witte Museum. If you aren’t a fan of spicy food, enjoy a comical take on the tradition at Las Nuevas Tamaleras, a Christmas play about first-time tamale makers at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (Nov. 27-Dec. 13). Plan your trip and see more details at http://visitsanantonio.com and www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com.
Ice and Snow in Our Back Yard
It’s not exactly a “getaway” for Keller residents, but The Gaylord Texan’s gargantuan holiday exhibit, ICE!, is a must-do, and it starts this month. You’ll have 52 days to experience the novelty of its 1.5 million twinkling lights, a 54-foot-tall Christmas tree and 15,000 ornaments. From Nov. 12 to Jan. 3, the resort will deck the halls and fill each day with family activities and entertainment.
With an international theme of “Christmas Around the World,” ICE! enchants families with a display of 2 million pounds of ice sculptures that celebrate cultural holiday traditions and Santa Claus’ travels around the globe, through Mexico, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and more. In the Frostbite Factory, artisans from Harbin, China — home to the annual Ice Lantern Festival — host an interactive carving station and 40 ice-carving masters spend 30 days taking shifts in the 9-degree freezer to create this year’s larger-than-life ICE! displays.
Daily activities also include an Elf on the Shelf scavenger hunt, a gingerbread-decorating corner, a parade of toys, and snow tubing on two-story tall ice slides covered in real snow. Purchase tickets and hotel packages at www.christmasatgaylordtexan.com.