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In springlike weather, San Antonio kicks off holiday season

November 24, 2018

Marcos Ortiz immigrated here from Mexico about 13 years ago, but never kicked off the holiday season at the city’s tree lighting ceremony — until this year, when he moved from the North Side to downtown for work.

So it was a short walk to Travis Park on Friday night for Ortiz, 23, and his German shepherd, Bear, to watch Santa illuminate the 50-foot blue spruce from northern Michigan that H-E-B donated to the city.

As thousands crushed closer to the tree for selfies, Ortiz and Bear stood in line at a booth smelling of pecan-flavored coffee, basking in the glow of 10,000 red and white LED lights.

“It’s impressive,” Ortiz said as Bear’s head twitched manically, trying to take in each individual person. “I like experiencing everything that’s downtown.”

It was the 34th Annual H-E-B Tree Lighting Celebration, in Travis Park for only the second time, following last year’s removal of the park’s former centerpiece, a statue of a Confederate soldier. For many years, H-E-B set up a Christmas tree in front of the Alamo, but as the city prepares to renovate Alamo Plaza, this year’s tree glitters where the statue once stood.

Some longtime San Antonians still resent the change to their tradition of flocking to Alamo Plaza for selfies that could capture both the twinkling tree and the Alamo’s facade. In protest, more than 100 people plan to decorate the plaza Sunday with miniature Christmas trees.

Gloria Taylor, 45, came to the tree lighting with her family, as she’s done every year since her childhood. Crowned with a paper reindeer headband featuring the H-E-B logo, Taylor said the party wasn’t the same without the Alamo.

“I liked it better there,” she said. “The Alamo makes it feel more like home.”

As the sun set and the ceremony began, the temperature sat at a balmy 70 degrees. Many in the crowd wore short sleeves. A few, planning for weather better aligned to the season, had insulated jackets. Even Santa commented on the difference between San Antonio and the North Pole.

Taylor kept a close eye on her 6-year-old daughter, Celia, who with Taylor’s mother crowded up to the stage as mariachis in Santa hats played and sang. The little girl didn’t seem to mind the change in venue. “She enjoys all the Christmas lights and everything else,” Taylor said.

Omar Garza, 42, and his wife Iris Maldonado, 34, also came to the tree lighting for the first time with their four children, taking a bus from the South Side. The couple, who are Puerto Rican, have lived in San Antonio for two decades. They saw the Christmas tree being delivered on the news and decided the celebration would be a good incentive to get out of the house.

Their children, ranging in age from 8 to 11, each wore the paper antlers and munched from their own baggies of Froot Loops as they looked from the mariachis to the tree, which this year had ornaments with the number 300 in honor of San Antonio’s tricentennial anniversary.

“This is awesome,” said the oldest, Christopher Garza. “The music, the tree. I like it.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg spoke before the tree lighting, urging the Spurs to victory and praising San Antonio as a city that remains friendly despite its rapid growth.

An hour before the Ford Holiday River Parade started, the river north of Lexington Avenue was quiet except for the sounds of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” playing from a speaker on one empty float, and a worker with a drill putting finishing touches on another barge.

But along the parade route, eager watchers were already taking their seats. Ed and Patricia Chempiel saved theirs for more than three hours before the first float passed by, setting up folding chairs on a landing just above the river’s edge.

The first time they came to the parade in 2015, they paid for seats in one of the ticketed areas, only to end up wet and cold when it rained out. Since then, it’s become their annual tradition to stake out spots in one of the free seating areas for a good vantage point.

This year, they brought along visitors from upstate New York to take in the sights.

“It’s nine degrees at home,” said Betty Grice, smiling as the sun started to set above the river. “I’m just excited about being here.”

After moving to the city a year ago, the Harryman family also was thrilled to see the parade for the first time, something they’d never seen back in Illinois.

“I saw pictures of it online,” said Emma Harryman, and she was looking forward to seeing it in person.

Others, like the Delafuente family, have been coming for more than a decade.

“This is our tradition, since they were babies,” said Darlene Delafuente, gesturing to the children sitting on the ground waiting for the parade to start. “Now my son is 17.”

Her family typically comes with a large group to the same area near the start of the route.

Ravyn Delafuente, 9, was dressed for the occasion in an illuminated flower crown, while 2-year-old Zylan Quillian played with a toy truck on the sidewalk.

As the floats started making their way south on the first leg of the 2 1/2 mile route, the crowd clapped and cheered.

Grand Marshal Joe Straus’ opening float drew cheers, “When It’s Christmas Time in Texas” playing from shipboard speakers, and a raucous response greeted the Spurs Sports and Entertainment float as it drifted past.

While most people said they were just there to enjoy the lights and music, at least one was watching with a more skeptical eye.

John Sanchez, who has previously judged the Fiesta Flambeau and the Battle of Flowers parades, had high expectations, he said. With no official role Friday, he still observed things out of habit.

“I look for use of color, use of lights, do they have any live entertainment,” he said. He also takes note of the crowd’s reaction to see how each boat resonates with the spectators.

Ed Chempiel, who said the parade is his favorite in San Antonio every year, said it marks the true start of the holiday season. “This says it’s Christmas time.”

Alia Malik covers several school districts and the Alamo Colleges District in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | amalik@express-news.net | Twitter: @AliaAtSAEN

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