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A Spanish Colonial Christmas

June 2024
7min read

Traditions nearly five hundred years old underlie San Antonio’s month-long celebration

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.”

Before any of that history began, nomadic Native Americans from across South Texas and Mexico, known collectively as Coahuiltecans, lived in the area. Their semipermanent communities were hundreds, possibly thousands, of years old when the Spanish arrived. The story of their unhurried existence in what is now the nation’s ninth largest city is chronicled in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which runs along the river south of downtown. A twelve-mile park driving trail links the five eighteenth-century missions, where the Franciscans tried to shuttle the “neophytes” into the Catholic faith and ready them—and thereby Texas—for inclusion into New Spain.

The first permanent Spanish settlement was established in the spring of 1718, and it nearly failed. The Provincial Texas governor and a missionary together pushed a group through six hundred miles of the Mexican frontier—and spent the whole trip bickering. Their differences ultimately split the group, so Father Antonio Olivares founded the Mission San Antonio de Valero on May 1, and Gov. Martin de Alarcón established the nearby fort Villa de Bexar a few days later.

The arrival of the first civilians, from the Canary Islands in March 1731, is considered the city’s unofficial start. They set up across the river from San Antonio de Valero and named their community Villa de San Fernando. The combined settlements would in the 1770s become the capital of the Texas province. By then the completed mission system was thriving. The missions San José, San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco de la Espada, and Concepción—the last has the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States—formed a chain south along the river for seven miles that became the greatest concentration of missions and Spanish colonial architecture in America.

Life was busy there from 1745 to 1775, but the diseases ravaging the native population hastened the system’s decline. By the end of 1794 the padres had too few converts to continue. Over the next few decades the churches were secularized and the land redistributed. San Fernando and the fort around Mission San Antonio de Valero became the town of San Antonio de Bexar.

Christmas mass at Mission San José isn’t much different from that at any other Catholic church. They’ve been saying mass there and at the other missions since the 1930s, when, after extensive restorations, the Franciscans were invited back. The National Park Service took over maintenance of the missions’ grounds in 1978. Visitors pile off tour buses every Sunday to witness mass in a church with whitewashed walls and few adornments. The morning I went a young couple was having their baby girl baptized. After the service a mariachi band treated everyone to songs in the courtyard out front, and people tapped toes and danced.

Las Posadas and the mystery play Los Pastures, which the friars used to teach the Coahuiltecans about the birth of Christ, are celebrated in classic fashion at the parishes as well as along the riverfront. At Mission San José the chants and pageantry of Los Pastores are performed by the Guadalupe Players sometime during the week after Christmas. They wear elaborate costumes and masks to depict the shepherds who set out for Bethlehem to see the baby, and Lucifer’s minions try to stop the journey. A sword battle ends with good vanquishing evil. Medieval priests had used the play to impress the faith on legions of Europeans who couldn’t read.

The oldest mission is the most famous one, though not for any spiritual reason. The “Shrine of Texas Liberty,” as the Daughters of the Republic of Texas call the Alamo, whose church was built in 1756, had stood neglected for more than twenty years when a Spanish calvary unit took control of it in 1821. After Cos’s defeat, in 1835, Cols. William B. Travis and James Bowie were ordered to hold the fort (David Crockett, of Tennessee, was a volunteer with them). Their aim was to block the Mexican advance north so as to buy time for Generals Austin and Houston and other Texans who were off creating a constitution for their new republic. Travis’s written pleas for reinforcements have stirred immeasurable ore: ”… I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country. VICTORY OR DEATH .”

Santa Anna’s four thousand troops stormed the presidio on March 6, 1836, destroying much. The shell of the church was spared, though the facade’s curved peak was actually added later, in 1849. It is now dwarfed by the surrounding downtown office buildings.

Inside I expected to feel the heavy weight of the ghosts of frontier bravado. Instead the hall, with its vaulted ceilings, struck me as bare and exposed, revealing no military advantage against a charging army. Delicate artifacts remain, such as Crockett’s slender rifle and remnants of the awesome knives of the frontiersman Bowie. The six flags that have flown over Texas—French, Spanish, Mexican, Texas Republic, Confederate, and United States—hang at the back wall. At the museum I learned that there were Tejano defenders, and contrary to legend there were about a dozen survivors, including several women, children, and a male slave.

The calamity instantly became a martyrdom. Cries of “Remember the Alamo!” rallied General Houston’s troops when they finally crushed Santa Anna on April 21 at San Jacinto, Texas. Texas remained independent for nearly ten years and elected Sam Houston its first president. The government went broke though; much of the land had been ravaged by war, and thousands of homesteaders were the victims of land-sale fraud. The republic had little choice but to become part of the United States, which it did on December 29, 1845.

Cattle ranching and growing immigration helped the new state attain some prosperity. Wealthy Germans who trekked into the city from Galveston 150 miles to the southwest went on to build mills and mansions in the King William district, named for Wilhelm I of Prussia. They brought the tradition of trimming evergreens at Christmas with them. The German immigrants also introduced the concept of artificial trees to Texas, attaching dyed turkey feathers to wire branches; these are now considered valuable antiques. The King William Association sponsors a tour of homes each holiday season. At the Steves Homestead, the district’s grandest home, you can see how the family of the lumber magnate of that name lived in the 1870s. I met a presentday Steves at Las Posadas who asked me, “Did you know that my husband was born on the kitchen table?” I did. It had been part of this tour.

In San Antonio you truly get your pick of holiday celebrations. Several floating Christmas parades and shipboard evenings dedicated to caroling drift downstream on the River Walk. Mariachi festivals and plays compete for attention, and marketplaces like Hecho A Mano display Southwestern pottery, jewelry, and other handcrafted items that make splendid gifts.

Late at night after Las Posadas I went through the gifts I was taking home. I had Southwestern crafts and candied treats, but my favorite were the Yanaguana worry dolls. They are miniature figures that are supposed to take your troubles away if you place them under your pillow at night. The Coahuiltecans gave them to the Spanish during their early encounters. I smiled to think that they might be Texas’s oldest Christmas gifts.

—Noëlle C. Collins TO PLAN A TRIP

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