A Spanish Colonial Christmas

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I know I get sentimental about the holiday for which I was named, but I could have sworn that the stuffed “Pancho Claus” on a balcony above San Antonio’s lovely River Walk winked at me. It wore the familiar red-and-white suit over its pudgy belly and shiny boots, but there all recognition ended. This Santa had a decidedly brown and beardless face with a toothy grin and a slick black mustache. Under the weight of a crooked golden sombrero, its head nodded forward as if to both assert the culture of Tejanos (Texans of Mexican or Spanish descent) and command a better view of the soectacle below.

It is hard not to become transfixed. The River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, as it is called in Spanish, is radiant during the Christmas season, which runs from late November through January 4, Three Kings Day. Downtown the waterway around which the city grew is bordered by twenty-one commercial blocks of cobblestone walks, little bridges, and majestic cypresses, all of them decked out with thousands of colored lights. Decorated water taxis carry visitors and carolers over the black water, which shines like quicksilver. And the air smells gloriously of pine.

San Antonians’ long relationship with their part of the 180-mile San Antonio River has been both intimate and sometimes troubled. By the 1870s city directories were listing addresses by their distance from its banks. And until 1878 most everyone bathed in it; then pipes were finally laid, and the first bathtubs were installed.

The river had its dangers. Manufacturers dumped in it, and it took its revenge by soaking the town ten times between 1819 and 1921. Panicked city leaders planned to fill a section of it with concrete after a flash flood in 1921 killed fifty people and destroyed millions of dollars in property. In 1924 two preservationists, Rena Maverick Green and Emily Edwards, organized what would become the San Antonio Conservation Society and successfully lobbied the mayor to find another solution. The issue caught the attention of Franklin Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration, which joined with the city to reverse the destruction and also preserve San Antonio’s five dilapidated Spanish missions along the river, which together would eventually become a historical park. Those missions are the oldest part of San Antonio; the earliest, San Antonio de Valero—better known for its later history as the Alamo—goes back to 1718.

Tonight the missions’ religious heritage is omnipresent. The Conservation Society has organized the annual Las Posadas, a public procession that mixes Catholic custom with sixteenth-century Mexican pagan ritual. Hundreds of locals and visiting pilgrims like myself have gathered to re-enact Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter on the way to Bethlehem. Each of us holds a candle, and thousands more candles covered in paper sacks—they are called luminarias —have been placed along the river to mark the way.

As the parade begins, a trumpeter hidden in a mariachi band pierces the silence with the opening notes of a Spanish Las Posadas carol. On one bank the mournful request for shelter goes out; then on the other side, no less than thirty feet away, singers voice the rejection. Tonight the band wears formal black. Their snug pants and matching bolero jackets are decorated with silver studs and intricate white lace patterns. Red neckties set off their white shirts—the whole outfit a romantic reminder of the music’s south-of-the-border origin.

Behind the band march community leaders and the four Franciscan padres who minister at the four working mission parishes (the Alamo is, of course, no longer a church). A dozen children play cherubs, and the crowd—the “congregation”—follows behind. Several adults have roles as poncho-clad shepherds. A costumed Joseph walks next to Mary, who rides a donkey.

En route we pass people eating at outdoor tables at fancy restaurants along the River Walk. Others watch from hotel balconies and the low bridges. A few make the sign of the cross, furthering a sense of our being in an outdoor cathedral. Nearly half an hour later the crowd settles into the Arneson River Theater to watch the pageant of the three kings’ arrival at the manger. The theater was designed so that the river separates the stage from the audience and boats can float by.

After the Christmas play, Las Posadas ends next door in the National Historic District, La Villita (the little village), which is near the Alamo and up against the river. La Villita is yet another treasure saved by WPA dollars, this time with the help of the National Youth Administration. On the site of a former Native American village, it represents two hundred years of continuous residence in what has alternatively been a slum and fashionable neighborhood, first for early Mexican and Spanish settlers and later for German ones. People are chatting about Christmas shopping just steps from the Cos House, the district’s oldest building, named after the brother-in-law of the Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna. In December 1835 Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos signed papers there surrendering the Alamo to Gen. Stephen F. Austin; the Alamo’s defenders were martyred when Santa Anna fought to recover it two months later.

Watching the re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s journey was like being in an outdoor cathedral.

“The river, our landmarks, and our architecture are so important to us,” says Sally Buchanan, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society. “This night is one way that we share and express our cultural heritage.”