Reasons to Love San Angelo: Christmas on the Concho
TEXAS MONTHLY MAGAZINE - December 2015
The Lights Fantastic -
Take a walk on the bright side as you bask in the glow of these five holiday trails.
EX: "Concho Christmas Celebration, San Angelo"
Revelers traverse the two-and-a-half-mile trail of lights along the banks of the Concho River in just about every form of transportation imaginable. If yours has a radio, turn to local station KCSA 97.1 to listen to Christmas tunes as you make your way through the Tunnel of Lights and past dozens of dazzling displays, from a field of poinsettias to fifty oversized greeting cards with well wishes from local residents. conchochristmascelebration.com
CHRISTMAS TRADITION SHINES ON
By Rick Smith
San Angelo Standard-Times
"Season's greetings from San Angelo," the sign reads, welcoming travelers.
Our car slows down, then stops at the entrance to one of our city's best-loved Christmas traditions.
Shivering but cheerful volunteers take our $5 (per car) donation and offer us candy canes in return. "Merry Christmas," they shout in unison.
We slowly drive on, dimming the headlights and tuning the radio to KCSA 95.7 FM for nonstop Christmas music. Everyone ready for fun? We drift under the Harris and Beauregard bridges heading toward the three million lights.
First stop on the 2½-mile Concho Christmas Celebration's Tour of Lights: "The Tunnel of Lights." Built in 2001, the 200-foot-long open-air metal and mesh structure is a psychedelic experience. The lights make the tunnel appear to be whirling and twirling as vehicles pass through. It seems as if you're tumbling over and over in an oversized dryer. Don't worry, though. It lasts only a minute or two. If the sensation makes you uncomfortable, close your eyes and wait until you're out of the tunnel. (Unless you're the driver!)
Next stop: "The 12 Days of Christmas." The ancient song never looked so good as it does in colorful light displays along the banks of the Concho River.
Rolling along the curving road behind dozens of other taillights, we pass by the "Partridge in a Pear Tree."
Many displays line the river, sometimes making it tricky to tell which is which. "Is that two turtle doves or three French hens?" we wonder. Then we realize signs identify the displays.
Along with the "12 Days of Christmas" displays, thousands of colorful lights cover trees, bridges and almost anything else that's not moving.
On the other side of the road, gigantic "Christmas cards" feature season's greetings from local businesses and residents. Meza Fence: "May God fill your life with love, joy and peace this holiday season and through the new year." Harrison Roofing: "Joy to the world, Jesus is alive." My favorite is the Sonic card. It shows a box full of wild-eyed, cartoon character tater tots and the words "tiny tots will find it hard to sleep tonight."
Not everyone drives on the tour. A pair of young people bundled in puffy jackets walk hand in hand along the river path.
Farther down the road a group of adults and children, all wearing Santa hats, laugh and point at displays as they walk the trail.
Not all drivers on the tour drive cars. One of the vehicles briefly traveling in our makeshift caravan is a covered buggy pulled by a beautiful horse.
The farther we go, the better the displays get. We see six geese laying, a snowman blowing smoke and a Nativity display with lights creating the manger, babe, Mary and Joseph, angel, sheep, camels, and the rest.
Just as we pass under the Abe Street Bridge, we're dazzled by a brilliant red and green display next to the Visitor Center. The huge artificial poinsettias, created from metal and light, are a new addition to this year's celebration. I vote them best of show.
But wait! The tour's not over yet. More beauty is squeezed between the Abe Street Bridge and Irving. We see piping pipers, leaping lords, milking milk maids, drumming drummers.
Reflections of the gleaming displays fill the river.
At Irving Street we turn the headlights back on, make a left turn, turn right onto Concho, another right onto Oakes and head over the bridge.
The tour ends at El Paseo de Santa Angela, next to the Farmers Market. The Paseo is the place the tour was born in 1995 as a short walk. Several colorful displays on the Paseo's grassy field go back to the beginning of the event. One's a huge American flag made of light. Another light display reads "God bless America" and a third has four gigantic candles lighting the night. They feel like old friends.
We have picked the wrong day to see one of our favorite displays, the The First Christian Church of San Angelo's living Nativity with its volunteer actors and live animals, but we'll be back.
LOOKING FOR LIGHTS ON A DARK, WINTRY NIGHT
By Rick Smith
San Angelo Standard-Times
By now, most of the people in West Texas must have enjoyed the Christmas decorations and lights along the Concho River
I have made the Tour of Lights a half-dozen or so times this season, chauffeuring friends and family along the riverside lights.
But Sunday I saw the tour in a different way.
I've always felt a little sorry for the volunteers who greet us at the entrance of the drive, collect our $5 donations and give us candy canes and smiles before shooing us down the road.
The shifts of volunteers stand next to the street for an hour or more in all kinds of weather.
"Why do they do it?" I wondered.
Last weekend I found out.
"The church is volunteering to help at the tour of lights," my wife, June, told me.
"I put us on the list," she added.
I immediately had a mental image of a shivering volunteer I had given my donation money to the week before.
"We'll freeze," I complained.
"Oh, come on," she said. "It's Christmas. Show a little Christmas spirit."
So, at the entrance to the Tour of Lights at 6 p.m. on a Sunday we and other church members received instructions on how to greet visitors, handle their donations and offer them candy canes (one for each person in the vehicle).
It sounded easy enough.
We all went to our stations and waited, but not for long.
Cars began trickling down First Street just a few at a time. We more or less organized ourselves into a donation-taker, candy cane-giver and survey hander-outer (my job).
Our instructions were to suggest a $5 donation. If people couldn't or wouldn't pay, no problem. Everyone was welcome to see the lights whether they donated or not.
Most paid. A few did not.
"I'm broke, but I really want to see the lights," a young woman in an old car said. We waved her on.
Some tried their best to scrape something together. One man, traveling with his family, dug around in the seat cushions for change while our donation taker told him not to worry, to go on ahead.
But he kept digging and eventually gave her a handful of pennies, nickels and dimes.
"Merry Christmas," he said, driving on.
I was surprised to learn the people who couldn't pay included some well-dressed folks in new cars.
On the other hand, a number of people who stopped not only paid the $5 for their vehicle, but also gave donations for the cars coming up behind them.
When we told drivers that the car before them had already paid for their entry, some handed over $5 or more anyway, telling us to use the money "for the car behind us."
One woman, hearing that her donation was paid for, gasped. "I was just at Starbucks, and I paid for the customer behind me," she said.
I was surprised how many visitors paid more than $5, shoveling over bills as fast as we could take them.
The best part of the evening was watching the children, who were watching the colorful lights stretching out before them. You could feel their excitement and expectation. (And they loved the candy canes.)
All through the evening many types of vehicles rolled past us. We saw classy convertibles with their roofs off in the clear, cold air. We saw hayride-style trailers full of kids wrapped in blankets. We saw a limousine, then a horse-pulled buggy. There were small buses full of passengers and huge pickups with dogs sticking their noses out the windows.
As the evening grew colder and darker, the lines of vehicles grew longer and longer. Two lanes of traffic sometimes stretched from the river all the way up to Abe Street.
The parade of people included all kinds of folks. Young and old. People driving shiny new cars and others in rusty old pickups. Some cars were packed full of sightseers. Others had only the lone driver.
All stopped for us a moment or two, and exchanged money and "Merry Christmases."
Then they slowly moved past to enjoy the bright lights ahead - and the spirit of Christmas - on a dark, wintry night.