The Stars at Night are Big and Bright Deep in the Heart of Austin, Texas

Christmas traditions are strong in Austin, Texas.  As a child, you knew St. Nick was finalizing his list when the Zilker Park Christmas Tree went up.  This is no ordinary Christmas Tree (Austin has one of those, too, a mile or so away at the Texas Capitol).  No.  The Zilker Park Tree is a fifteen story swirl of gaudy colored lights wrapped around one of Austin’s iconic Moon Towers.  The Zilker Park Tree is where children go to twirl until they are dizzy, teens go to "hang out", college kids go to raise hell, and families go to watch the mayhem unfurl around them.

The Zilker Tree is the last stop after cruising Austin’s own winter wonderland, the Trail of Lights.  As a little boy, my sisters and I would get in our favorite pajamas, load in the VW van with blankets, hot chocolate, and hot toddy’s for the adults (extra hot, if you know what I mean).  All the cars would line up on Barton Springs Road, turn off their headlights, and wait in line for over an hour to cruise through the Trail of Lights.  We would fog up the windows as we pressed our faces against the glass to get a closer look at Snoopy and Charlie Brown, the Grinch, and of course Santa Claus and his helpers.  The whole cruise may have lasted 10 minutes, but it was ten minutes we looked forward to every single year. 

My most vivid cruise through the Trail of Lights was in my teenage years.  Like before, my sisters and I loaded into my granddad’s new minivan and headed to Zilker Park for the experience.  We drank cokes instead of hot chocolate and the adults had not-so-hot toddies.  I’m certain I had a mullet and wore Girbaud jeans with a Bill Cosby sweater (I'm sexy and I know it).  Anyway, we cynically waited in line for two hours (Austin had doubled in size and so had the line).  As we finally passed through the entry, I was so disappointed.  What was a wonder as a kid now looked like cheesy plywood cut-outs with cracked paint, wired lights, and fake snow.  To top it off, my granddad’s new minivan had automatic headlights for safety that he could not turn off.  He was ruining the experience for all the cars around him! My disappointment turned to embarrassment. He was so frustrated at the honking and flashing lights directed at him, we rushed through the whole trail complaining.  Fortunately, Grandad didn’t run over any reindeer while he made his escape that Christmas Eve.

At the time, the whole experience was disappointing and annoying.  However, as an adult I look back and all of the disappointment is gone and all that is left is the memory of having that experience with my family and grandparents. We laugh about it now, but it was not at all funny then.

Over the years we would still find our way to the Zilker Park Christmas tree, but every trip has been a different experience.  In college, I recall stumbling through the park with a group of friends while holding hands with my then-current crush.  I'm pretty sure we "hung out" for a while.   As a young father, I strolled with my son on my shoulders and pushed my little girl in a stroller.  Those were very happy times. This year, we will no doubt be wearing face masks, but hey, that’s the way life goes.  The lights will still be bright and cheerful and remind us of all the times before and inspire hope for the good times to come.

Wishing you a very happy and annoyance-free holiday season!

- Bruce


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