Christmas in San Antonio
San Antonio is home to many Christmas traditions, some of which continue today and some of which are no longer practiced. The picture files at the DRT Library document some of ways in which San Antonians have enjoyed the holiday season.
The first photograph, taken in December 1922, shows a Christmas tree in Alamo Plaza. According to a November 25, 2006 article in the San Antonio Express-News, the tradition of a tree in front of the Alamo dates to 1914, “when the local Rotary Club put up an artificial tree for poor and homeless children and showered them with toys and sweets.” In fact, the sign to the left of the tree in the picture says “Rotary Christmas Tree…Dec. 22, 1922.” In later years, the city of San Antonio was responsible for the Alamo tree, and beginning in 1986 a live tree was sponsored each year by a grocery store.
In the below photograph, residents of Boysville enjoy a visit from Santa in 1952. The history of Boysville dates to 1943, when Reverend Don Holliman sought to help the orphaned, homeless, and abandoned boys he observed in Travis Park. As stated at Boysville’s website, “police picked these boys up from the park in an effort to provide some safety and shelter for them,” but “because they had no other place to take them the police took them to a detention center even though they had not committed a crime.” Known as “A Home with a Heart for Boys,” Boysville provided a safe and caring environment for boys, and today continues to provide boys and girls with food, shelter, clothing, medical care, community, and access to education.
The final photograph shows Joske’s famous forty-foot fiberglass Santa being hoisted and positioned onto the roof of the department store in downtown San Antonio. Julius Joske, a German Jewish immigrant, opened his dry goods store near Main Plaza around 1867; after several relocations and name changes, Joske Brothers opened at the corner of East Commerce and Alamo Streets in 1887. This flagship store became known as “The Big Store.” In 1936, a joint venture between Joske’s and the city of San Antonio turned the store into the first fully air-conditioned store in Texas. By 1953, Joske’s boasted a slogan of “the biggest store in the biggest state” and its 551,000 square foot, five-story store was the largest department store west of the Mississippi River, a distinction it held until its closure in 1987.
Joske’s was known for its elaborate Christmas decorations, which included holiday window displays and the elaborate fourth-floor Fantasyland, where children saw a winter forest, a miniature town square, and Talking Bears while standing in line with their parents to see Santa. The outdoor Santa enjoyed a commanding view of downtown San Antonio from the 1950s to the 1970s; while he was brought out of retirement in 1994, in 1997 he was severely damaged in a windstorm and permanently removed from the building’s roof.