History of Austin

The festive history of Austin's favorite holiday traditions and events

The festive history of Austin's favorite holiday traditions and events

Trail of Lights tree Austin skyline
The Zilker Holiday Tree has been a dazzling skyline addition since the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Licarione Photography
Zilker Holiday Tree
Laurie Mitchell Allen, pictured here in the 1960s, was the second person to win the art contest and light the Zilker Holiday Tree. Photo courtesy of Laurie Mitchell Allen
Trail of Lights tree Austin skyline
Zilker Holiday Tree

Holidays in Austin aren't usually postcard-perfect scenes of white snow and roaring fires, but that doesn't stop the city from having a holly jolly good time. In fact, Conde Nast Traveler recently named Austin one of the best places to spend Christmas in the U.S. — even if our holiday dinner is more likely proceeded by a dip in Barton Springs than a dash through the show.

It's Austin's unique holiday traditions that make it a dazzling destination, but like so many traditions, the origin stories aren't always known. As we celebrate another holiday season, we dug into the history of Austin's most famous holiday events.

Zilker Holiday Tree and Trail of Lights
What began as a humble holiday celebration in 1965 has now become a tradition known around the world. Today, the Trail of Lights encompasses over 65 displays and two million lights, with welcoming 400,000 visitors throughout December. In fact, the holiday light display is so popular it is nominated for the USA Today's Top 10 Public Holiday Lighting Displays (the winner will be revealed on December 14).

Each year, the addition of the Zilker Holiday Tree to the Austin skyline heralds the coming holiday season. The first tree was lit by Mayor Pro Tem Emma Long in 1967, and two years later a citywide art contest was held each year with the winners taking over lighting duty. 

Today, the tree is 155 feet tall and has 39 streamers each holding 81 bulbs for a total of 3,309 lights. The tree is topped with double stars made up of 150 frosted bulbs. The tree uses one of Austin's 18 remaining moonlight towers as its base. Fun fact: The swirling pattern of the tree was originally suggested by city electricians. In the years since, thousands of Austin families have celebrated and swirled under the lights.

Decorating Loop 360
Exactly when residents began decorating the Juniper trees alongside Loop 360 is uncertain, however, area residents first began noticing the phenomenon in the mid-1990s. Since it actually violates Texas' anti-litter laws, those early lawbreakers went into stealth-decorating mode, spreading tinsel and ornaments in the wee hours of the morning while donning all-black ensembles.

As the years passed, and the tree decorations became expected. In response, the Texas Department of Transportation relented and started urging people instead to ensure the tree decorations were secure and not blowing into the roads or polluting nearby creeks and waterways. And people began showing up during daylight hours dressed in regular clothes to join the festivities.

Because the trees are often decorated then ignored after the holidays, local organizations now conduct cleanups in the new year to ensure the tradition is kind to the local environment. Volunteers fill U-Haul trucks with ornaments headed for Goodwill stores and trash headed to the landfill.

Armadillo Christmas Bazaar
Once upon a time in Austin, shopping for handmade goods wasn't always accessible. The Armadillo Christmas Bazaar took care of this need starting in 1975 at South Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters, located at 505 Barton Springs Rd. Musicians such as Willie Nelson,Van Morrison, and Frank Zappa filled the hall with beloved tunes while shoppers browsed handmade and unusual crafts.

Despite the AWHQ closing in 1980, the bazaar has continued to grow in popularity, bouncing between six locations before moving to the permanent home at the Palmer Events Center in 2010. Keeping Austin Weird and wonderful, the bazaar continues to delight crowds every year.

The 2019 Armadillo Christmas Bazaar runs from December 13-24. In addition to music, and handmade goods for sale, holiday activities will be offered, including brew master tasting, onsite chain stitching, a mushroom selfie closet, and much, much more.

New traditions
There are also a number of relatively new holiday traditions in town, including the 37th Street lights, Mozart's Coffee Roasters' free and ever-growing dazzling light show, lighted boat parades on Lake Austin, and the lighting of the former airport tower in the Mueller neighborhood.

It is December, and the weather is typically mild and enjoyable, but there is still a plethora of holiday happenings in the community. The only downside is choosing one event over the other.