Escape the holiday crowds in Austin.
By Hannah J. Phillips, Horseshoe Bay photo courtesy of Horseshoe Bay Resort, Johnson City lights photo courtesy of Pedernales Electric Cooperative, Jet ski Santa photo by Courtney Runn
December is a month of holiday markets, company parties, gathering with loved ones and, too often, a frenzied flurry of activity, from those first Black Friday sales to the last clink of Champagne flutes on New Year’s Eve. For a chance to slow down and savor some of the season’s best offerings, skip traffic at Zilker Park and head west to the Hill Country. Whether for a day or a few nights, these towns offer ample opportunities for merriment and cheer at a more leisurely pace.
Dec. 14, Horseshoe Bay Resort will host a live concert featuring the original Charlie Brown Christmas music of Vince Guaraldi in the hotel ballroom. Presented by the Austin Chamber Music Center, the annual event normally takes place at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin, so this exclusive Hill Country event is your chance to catch the performance in a more intimate setting. Guests of the resort can do their holiday shopping the next day during the pop-up Winter Market Dec. 15. Featuring favorite local makers like Kendra Scott, Raven + Lily, Colores Collective and more, the market will include horse-drawn carriage rides, photos with Santa Claus, a holiday laser light show and a performance by the VocaLibre a cappella group.
With all the activity, no one would blame you for letting the holidays come to you, never leaving the resort. But it would be a shame to miss festivities in the historic town center in Marble Falls, Texas. Get into the holiday spirit by shopping along Main Street. Peruse the many boutiques and antique shops, and be sure to try homemade gelato and delicious toffee from Choccolatte’s.
This month also provides the perfect opportunity to support local businesses and charities still working to help Burnet County residents recover from the devastating September floods. Volunteers from local charities man the hot-chocolate stand and Santa’s Workshop at the Walkway of Lights, a less congested but equally charming answer to Austin’s Trail of Lights that runs through Dec. 26. Highlights include the Lone Star Flag-inspired entryway, Santa on a Steamboat (which also features a Texas flag) and Santa on a jet ski.
If you’re looking for a white Christmas, head northwest to Burnet, Texas, Dec. 8 for a full day of festivities on the square. Saturday from noon to 4 p.m., 40,000 pounds of real snow will adorn the old town square, with live music all day, local food and craft vendors, and a parade at 5 p.m. After dark, head two blocks east of the square to the First Baptist Church of Burnet’s Main Street Bethlehem. This is an immersive experience of the nativity story, with this city block transforming into the ancient city of Bethlehem. Wind your way through the crowd of travelers, merchants, Roman soldiers and animals, past the inn with no vacancies, to find Mary and Joseph with their newborn child.
The nearby Fort Croghan is an equally immersive holiday experience set in the early days of the 1800s. Lit by candlelight, the museum’s annual event offers locals an opportunity to experience Christmas as it would have been celebrated by the pioneers. Re-enactors dressed in period costumes will answer all your questions about life on the frontier. Enjoy homemade soup, hot cider and cookies while listening to their tales as carolers sing.
While Fredericksburg, Texas, is the go-to for Hill Country excursions, Johnson City, Texas, is the unsung hero of Christmas festivities—and closer to Austin. The 700-acre Lyndon B. Johnson State Park honors the former president, transforming every December into a dazzling Christmas display. Dec. 16, catch the 49th annual LBJ Tree Lighting at 5:30 p.m. The former president initiated this Hill Country tradition, which includes a German polka band, live nativity and the ceremonial lighting of a beautiful native cedar.
In Johnson City itself, don’t miss the historic Blanco County Courthouse, illuminated with more than 100,000 millionwhite lights to celebrate the holiday season. Walk from the courthouse to the canopy of oaks at Pedernales Electric Cooperative, where 1.3 million lights sparkle overhead and create the perfect backdrop for your seasonal photos with family, friends and your furry companions.
Blue Hole and Wimberley
A blue Christmas isn’t so bad at Blue Hole Regional Park near Wimberley, Texas, southwest of Austin. Dec. 15, the iconic swimming hole becomes a winter wonderland of dazzling blue lights during Wimberley Blue Christmas. The annual event includes horse-drawn carriage rides, carol singing and an ugly-sweater contest, plus hot chocolate and treats around the fire at the McCord-Welp Overlook and a chance to visit Santa in the Wood-Grinstead Amphitheater.
For more lights and festive fun, head to the EmilyAnn Theatre in Wimberley for a walking tour through six acres of glittering holiday cheer. Don’t miss the burning of Ye Olde Yule Log, an opportunity to warm yourself by the fire after enjoying the trail.
Of course, the holidays haven’t truly begun in Texas until Cowboy Kringle rides into Gruene, Texas, to light the historic town center. He rode into town Dec. 1, and you can take photos with him every Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 22. While there, be sure to visit the General Store for Christmas gifts and treats, and catch Bah Humbug, a one-man performance of A Christmas Carol in The Grapevine Garden Dec. 8.
If you miss Gruene during Christmas, save it for your New Year’s Eve festivities, dancing into 2019 at Gruene Hall. The oldest dance hall in Texas doesn’t stop partying on New Year’s Eve; head back on Jan. 1 for the annual Hair of the Dog event, when you can “drink your drink away” with live music all day.