Many years ago, during the Holiday Season, my brother along with some others would rent a bus to tour Austin and look at all of the various holiday lights and decorations. A theme party of sorts and an annual affair, the bus was filled with all types of people in the party mode and stocked with snacks, a couple of kegs of beer and other assorted party favors. I think Wild Turkey may also have been involved. For several years I had the duty of taking the role of Santa Claus and dressing the part. It may seem silly to some of you but I was single and more mischievous back then and you have no idea how many girls want to get to know Santa...But I digress. After touring various decorated areas in town the last stop of the party bus tour was always the celebrated Zilker Park Christmas Tree .
The Zilker Park Christmas Tree is not real but man-made and constructed of strands of Christmas lights. The lights are strung from one of Austin's Moon Towers, which were built in the early 1900s to illuminate the city at night. Most are gone but originally were laid out in the city, miles apart and if you were to fly over you would have seen that they were in the shape of an enormous Texas Star. The tower stands 155 feet tall and has 39 strands of lights with 3,309 bulbs that are attached to 19 utility poles, each 14 feet tall, arranged in a circle around the Moon Tower. The diameter is said to be 120 feet and the circumference the tree measures 380 feet. At the top of the tree, a double Texas Star measures 10 feet from point to point and has 150 white frosted bulbs.
Apart from the obvious fun of visiting the tree there is a surprising phenomenon that all first time visitors experience. The strands of lights each hold 81 multicolored, 25 watt bulbs, however, City of Austin electricians created a unique spiral pattern of yellow lights that cause the naked eye to flicker when you look up from beneath the tree. First timers are always surprised and of course nearly everyone stands near the center of the tree and begins to turn slowly at first and then like some whirling dervish while staring straight up. It's a remarkable experience and the funniest thing is watching people of all ages having a ball! Children, old folks, teenagers, the stoic and silly, all laughing and carrying on while many collapse dizzy from the experience. I always succumb to the urge everytime we visit!
It was on my very first occasion as the "Party Bus Santa" that we pulled up in one of the nearby parking areas and begin to unload for the short walk to Zilker Park Christmas Tree . It was a chilly evening and everyone was feeling frisky and "in the spirit" and Santa was having a field day hearing from the girls about who was naughty what they wanted for Christmas etc. One of them told me that the reason Santa was always so jolly was because he knew where all the naughty girls lived! The back of the bus operated as our refreshment stand and we all refilled our cups with beverage and I lit up a cigarette. (Yes...I used to smoke many years ago but quit in 1986). Then with a young lady on each arm, I began to lead the lively crowd to the tree and I have to tell you I was thoroughly enjoying myself. When suddenly, (it's always "suddenly" in these stories) I noticed some sort of commotion across the distance between us and the tree. It appeared to be a group of elves shouting and waving madly and they seemed to be heading for our group. Confused at first, I was suddenly struck by the shocking realization that they were not elves but...CHILDREN! In a blinding flash I forgot about the party, the girls, the revelry and panicked. I was having fun but I KNEW I did not want to ruin a child's innocent view of SANTA CLAUSE!
Okay, I may have been a frisky Santa out partying during the holidays but I am still a decent person! I quickly stomped my cigarette and shoved the beverage into the open coat of one of my companions who screamed when the cup spilled its frigid contents. The stampede of kids was nearing as I frantically rubbed the lipstick from my face on the front of the blouse of my other new friend who could not stop giggling. Just in the nick of time, I managed to get it together and shout HO HO HO to the children who were excitedly gathering at my feet. I was so nervous and sweating like a politician in church as I patiently listened to all of the three dozen or so kids while nervously eyeing their parents to see if I was doing alright. Eventually everyone went back to the tree and several of the parents said thanks for being such a good sport. You cannot imagine the relief I felt when we got back on that bus and I have to say, "Mischevious Santa" also scored "good guy" points with my companions and that's always a good thing!
If you live in Austin and have never been to the Zilker Park Christmas Tree or will be visiting during the holidays, you need to do yourself a favor and visit. It is truly an icon of the holiday season in Austin Texas. It's a lot of fun, silly and refreshingly simple. Just enjoy it and maybe even some hot caramel corn, funnel cakes or hot chocolate that are sold in nearby booths. These days you will want to leave the eggnog and other adult beverages at home as the park has rules and for good reason. I would not want to take the chance of meeting a rogue Santa who might not have the same ‘crisis of conscience" and if you saw the movie, you know how these things can turn out...
Season's greetings to all and I wish you the best in the New Year!