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Austin, Texas, twists millions of twinkling lights into elaborate displays to celebrate in December. Writer Elizabeth Trovall takes us on a tour.
Text and photos by: Elizabeth Trovall
Country: United States

ased on the German practice of decorating the Christmas tree with candles stuck to branches with melted wax, Christmas lights have become a beloved international holiday tradition.

Christmas lights during the holidays are popular, particularly in the United States, where the first electrically illuminated holiday tree was displayed in New York City. Though Christmas lights first were used for trees only, in the 1960′s many American households began to decorate their homes with Christmas lights too.

Now houses, businesses, government buildings, and parks all across the country, and increasingly the world, boast elaborate holiday light displays. Every year the media covers crazy stories of individuals who have redefined the holiday spirit, like the families who synched their lights with songs like “Carol of the Bells” and “Gangnam Style”.

To share their Christmas spirit with the globe, a family in Alaska has set up their house lights so they can be turned on and off online via random users from around the world. Even reality television has profited from the popularity of this great tradition with the show called “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” where holiday-happy households compete for a prize of $50,000.

Extreme reality show competitions aside, the tradition of holiday lights does have its heart in the right place. Communities big and small have tree-lighting events and lighted walks and trails that are attended by locals year after year. In Austin, Texas, one especially revered Christmas lights tradition has brightened up the city’s holiday spirit for decades.

The Trail of Lights

Due to its warm climate, residents of Austin, Texas don’t enjoy the typical white Christmas like many other North Americans. However, the mild winters provide the ideal conditions for enjoying outdoor Christmas light decorations in the park. The cherished Trail of Lights celebration is set up in the capital city’s Zilker Metropolitan Park, also home to famous Austin music festivals like Austin City Limits. As its name would imply, the “trail” of lights is set up along a cement pathway within the park, making it easy to navigate. Behind the glittering Christmas lights, visitors also have a spectacular view of the illuminated Austin city skyline.

The trail, which stretches just over a mile, features 100 lighted trees and over 50 different Christmas light displays, some with a classic holiday feel and others that represent Austin’s quirkiness. Many light displays are also accompanied by the presence of favorite cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Winnie the Pooh.

Many families or groups of friends on the trail like to stop for pictures at the holiday displays. The various lighted tunnels are especially great for photo ops. These tunnels are assembled with hundreds of Christmas lights overhead. One of the trail’s tunnels is especially “Austin,” as it’s made to re-create a bat cave, with Christmas-light bats “flying” above. The bats are an homage to another Austin tradition, watching thousands of bats fly to their evening bug feast on Lady Bird Lake, downtown.

Besides the trail’s 2 million lights, there’s also plenty of food, entertainment and activities to keep visitors busy. The Trail of Light’s more than 30 food trailers are a special treat, serving goodies like kettle corn, funnel cakes, tacos, ice cream, shawarma, and more. In addition to Santa’s House and Santa’s Workshop, children enjoy riding the trail’s ferris wheel and classic carousel. Several holiday events are also hosted at the trail, including the Fun Run, a short 2.1 mile run that ends within the Trail of Lights. Many runners enjoy dressing up in costumes for the run to proudly display their holiday spirit.

A twirl under the tree

The Trail of Light’s grand finale is perhaps the most important element of the tradition. At the trail’s end stands a 155-foot-tall man-made Christmas tree, the famous Zilker Tree, created by strings of spiraling, bright, colorful lights. The tree is hollow underneath and filled with vendors selling food and drinks as families stare up at the psychedelic tree from below. Lovers, siblings, spouses, and friends pair up; grabbing each other’s arms and spinning as fast as they can while staring up at the tree. These pairs test how long they can keep twirling without falling down from dizziness. Though perhaps a bit quirky, this treasured tradition brings together Central Texans from all walks of life to celebrate the holidays with the people they love.

A trail of tradition

Some families have been attending the Trail of Lights since it began in 1965. The celebration began as the “Yule Fest.” The Austin Parks and Recreation Department lit a log among a small group of community members. The tall Zilker Christmas Tree was assembled just two years after the first Yule Fest and at that time was deemed “the world’s largest man-made Christmas tree.”

If you fast-forward a few decades, the tradition has expanded as quickly as Austin has. Over 400,000 people attended the Trail of Lights in 2014, which is more than the population of Austin the first year of the celebration. The Trail of Lights is now one of the three largest yearly events held in Austin. True to Austin’s rich cultural diversity, attendees come from all over the world, including New York City, Vietnam, and Honduras. Reasonably priced and centrally located in the city, the activity is truly accessible for all, attracting Austin natives as well as tourists passing through. Though there are many different Central Texas activities for celebrating the holidays, nothing really compares to the glitter, quirk, diversity, and tradition of Austin’s Trail of Lights.




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Holiday lights make city shine


Christmas lights during the holidays are popular, particularly in the United States. Originally, Christmas lights were only for trees, but in the 1960'’s many American households began to decorate their homes with Christmas lights too. Now houses, businesses, government buildings, and parks boast elaborate holiday light displays.

Every year, Zilker Metropolitan Park in Austin, Texas hosts the Trail of Lights celebration. The trail is just over a mile long and features 100 lighted trees and over 50 different Christmas light displays. Some displays have a classic Christmas theme and others represent Austin'’s quirkiness. Many light displays even feature cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Winnie the Pooh.

Many families and groups of friends stop along the trail to take pictures and at the end of the trail is the grand finale, the famous Zilker Tree: a 155-foot-tall man-made Christmas tree created by strings of spiraling, bright, colorful lights. People hold hands under the tree and spin until they get dizzy.

The Trail of Lights began in 1965 as the 'Yule Fest' with the lighting of a log among a small group of community members. Two years later they assembled the tall Zilker Christmas Tree for the first time. At the time it was the world'’s largest man-made Christmas tree. The tradition continues to grow. In 2014 over 400,000 people attended the Trail of Lights, many of them from out of town. If you are in Austin for the holiday season, be sure to check out the Trail of Lights!

 

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