For a Hispanic-flavored holiday, sample San Antonio. From the lights along the river to Spanish plays and pageants, this city celebrates Christmas with a Mexican flair

EVERY Christmas season in San Antonio, 1,600 luminarios are lighted along the Alamo City's famous River Walk. These votive candles, placed in sack-lunch-size paper bags and held in place by a few inches of sand, are a Southwestern tradition, symbolizing the celestial lights that greeted the Christ child. The flickering brown luminarios are one of many joys that San Antonio offers the yuletide visitor. From just after Thanksgiving on into the new year, visitors here get a taste of a Christmas that is fashioned more after influences from the south - primarily Mexico - than from the north. The city's rich religious tradition is carried on through a number of pageants and festivals that may seem almost quaint in an era when the holiday season has taken on an ever-growing commercial edge.

But many travelers - whether on a short business trip, visiting family, or in town to see the many sites the nation's 10th-largest city has to offer - have noticed just how refreshing San Antonio in December can be. The malls and the frantic shoppers are here, of course, but somehow they seem easier to escape in a city where the season's religious traditions far outshine the commercial.

What makes the yuletide season in San Antonio worth a weekend trip or more is the city's strong Hispanic influences. These make for a Christmas that looks, feels, smells, and tastes different from the one most Americans know. San Antonio is the largest city in the United States with a majority Hispanic population.

The season's red is more likely to be provided by dried hot peppers fashioned into a wreath than by English holly berries. Tamales, spiced hot chocolate, and Mexican cookies figure among the traditional foods. And in San Antonio, the jolly, rotund fellow in the red and white suit faces some friendly competition from a black-mustached, serape-draped Pancho Claus - the city's Hispanic equivalent of the legendary Santa Claus.

``Bringing out the Hispanic traditions is so much more appropriate for our climate than the snow and sleigh bells - that's stuff we've never seen,'' says Peggy Tobin, a member of the city's Conservation Society and an ardent supporter of the city's Christmas with a Spanish accent.

``Oh, I can remember when we used to put shaving cream on the windows to make it look like the North. But now we have a Christmas that fits our climate and our history.''

One Christmas custom that's dear to San Antonians is Las Posadas, a pageant depicting the holy family's search for a place to have their child. Continuing a Spanish tradition, the story has been told in the city's old missions and parishes for more than 250 years.

Beginning in the mid-'60s it was produced in the downtown area - initially as a booster of civic unity - and it has attracted local residents and their guests on a mid-December evening along the River Walk ever since. It will be performed this Sunday.

``It was right about the time we were battling a major expressway they were planning to put through one of our nicest parks,'' says Lillian Padgett, a San Antonian who originated the idea of presenting Las Posadas downtown.

The city was torn over the freeway proposal, so Mrs. Padgett - one of the road project's most unyielding critics - decided the pageant might be a way of bringing the city back together.

``The first year we only had about 30 people, but it has grown to something the whole community takes part in,'' she says, adding: ``We got the expressway route modified, too.''

Also a favorite is Los Pastores, Jan. 9-10, another traditional Spanish play that is presented at the city's San Jos'e Mission, one of five from the early 1700s that make up the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. (The Alamo, in the heart of downtown, is also one of the missions.)

San Jos'e, known as ``the queen of the missions of New Spain,'' is the perfect setting for the play that tells how the devil attempts - unsuccessfully of course! - to prevent the wise men, shepherds, and other pilgrims from reaching the Christ child.

San Antonio's Christmas season is actually kicked off the weekend of Thanksgiving, when the city's mayor, Henry Cisneros, flips the switch on thousands of lights that twinkle in the trees along the River Walk, on which hotels and riverside restaurants and shops have been built. Following the lighting ceremony is a parade of brightly decorated river barges.

From then until Christmas, festivals and special holiday events are commonplace, especially in the city's churches. One rather special event that takes place just once, but which some visitors may not want to miss, is the blessing of the pets at El Mercado, a Mexican-style market.

Each year a Franciscan priest is asked, in the tradition of the nature-loving St. Francis, to bless the pets that are brought to the market. And each year El Mercado is turned into a temporary menagerie of birds, turtles, hamsters, snakes - and, of course, dogs and cats.

It is also at El Mercado that children may catch a glimpse of Pancho Claus, who brings greetings from the children of Mexico. A week-long Fiesta Navidena is scheduled to conclude Sunday in El Mercado.

To fill out the holiday festivities, visitors may choose from a number of possibilities, most of which are found in or near the downtown area.

A good start is the historic King William residential district, south of downtown, along the San Antonio River. Named after King William of Prussia, the area was developed in the late 1800s and includes a number of the city's finest old mansions. A huge flood in 1921 persuaded the moneyed classes to seek higher ground north of downtown, but after years of neglect the neighborhood is coming back. Some of the mansions are open, either for tours or as bed-and-breakfast accommodations, but it's also a nice area for a morning or afternoon stroll.

Another worthwhile stop is the San Antonio Museum of Art, home to one of the nation's finest collections of Mexican folk art. A 500-piece permanent exhibition offers a spirited and brightly colored glimpse of the many facets of an art form that maintains an important influence in San Antonio and the rest of the South-west.

Also of interest is the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, which features plants from the Southwest, Mexico, and Central America. Of special note here is the unusual plant conservatory, completed this year. The structure's partly underground greenhouses allow for taking advantage of the welcome winter sun, while protecting plants from the relentless heat of summer.

Of course the first-time visitor to San Antonio won't want to miss the Alamo, Texas' own cradle of liberty.

And for those visitors who can stretch their holiday visit to New Year's Eve, the city holds an annual party on the plaza in front of the Alamo. Food and entertainment, much of it with a Mexican flair, culminates in a fireworks display at midnight.

If you go

Additional information is available by calling the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-531-5700 (from outside Texas) or 800-292-1010 (within the state).

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