Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Festival of Lights, 2013

One of the loveliest of holiday celebrations in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas is the "Festival of Lights."  Hidalgo, a small city about thirty miles from our south Texas home, is located on the northern bank of the Rio Grande River.  It has hosted this event for twenty-two years.

The town is old, established in 1749 by José de Escandon, an early Spanish explorer of the area.  It has been known by various names over its many years of existence but now proudly bears the name of Father Miguel Hidalgo, the inspiration for Mexico's independence from Spain.  A statue of its namesake stands at the entrance to the city park.  More than 97% of Hidalgo's 11,198 residents are Hispanic, over 44% living below the U.S. poverty line.  Most of the year, the city is best known as the location of the northern end of the busiest international bridge which connects Hidalgo, Texas, to Reynosa, Mexico.

But, during the month of December, Hidalgo throws a holiday party of epic proportions, a treat for the eyes, ears, taste buds and wallets!  Each evening during the month, the fun begins before dark as holiday celebrants arrive for dinner.  Approaching City Hall on the main plaza of town, clues to the coming festivities can be seen in every direction.

The empty stage in front of City Hall holds the promise of entertainment to come.  Dinner is prepared and served as a fund-raising event for one of the local school or community groups and diners enjoy their feast at tables prepared for them on the porch of the city Hall building.
As the sun sinks below the horizon and daylight fades, more than three million festival lights begin to come alive.
Trains, trolleys and horse-drawn wagons get in line to load up for the holiday light tour of the city.
The waiting lines for the tours are long so Washboard Willie, a wandering minstrel, entertains the queues by singing Christmas songs, accompanying himself with sleigh bells and washboard.
Finally dark descends and the tour begins.  Up and down the bumpy streets of Hidalgo the touring vehicles make their slow way.  Now and then the trolley slows or stops so the narrator can point out a special display, such as the house of musician Ramon Ayala, the local celebrity.  His elegant home is always festooned with lights from the ground to the rafters including all the surrounding trees!
The displays are varied, bright, creative and beautiful. 
They range from sublime reminders of the real meaning of Christmas,
through imaginative and symbolic images,
to this whimsical illustration of the Christmas song "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
Texans never pass up an opportunity to brag about their state, so even Christmas light displays include a bit of Texas pride. This display includes an armadillo, the Lone Star, the Texas statehouse, a spaceship representing Houston, and all, of course, in the patriotic colors of red, white and blue.
Other displays have even less connection to the coming holiday, such as this lighted image of a London double-decker bus.  Brightly colored dinosaurs, the Loch Ness monster, butterflies and peacocks add variety to the displays.  Christmas cards, designed and drawn by local school students, line the walls and fences along the tour route.
Over fifty commercial sponsors also provide elaborate and prominent light displays.  Sponsors include local TV and newspapers (both English and Spanish language media), the H-E-B grocery chain, Hershey's, Kleenix, Pepsi, Kraft, Oreo, Maxwell House, and, of course, the City of Hidalgo.
After an hour-long tour of over 900 light displays lining the city streets, the trolley returns its visitors back to the stage in front of City Hall.  It is no longer empty but is filled with the music of the boys' choir of Estudiantina Guadalupana from San Luis Potosi, Mexico.  The boys are dressed in outfits resembling medieval minstrels and they sing enthusiastically in both Spanish and English. 
(If you look carefully at the above picture, a very small boy is just barely visible to the right of the speaker on the left side of the stage.  We estimated his age to be no more than five years but he sang a solo in a voice ten times his size and with all the stage presence of a professional!) 
We hope this internet tour gives you a hint as to why Hidalgo's "Festival of Lights" is one of our favorite holiday outings, year after year.   With this virtual tour, we send our holiday greetings to all of you:
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.