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Christmas in San Antonio

December 23, 2008

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.

Christmas tree in Alamo Plaza, December 1922. (SC5029.1)

Christmas tree in Alamo Plaza, December 1922. (SC5029.1)

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.

Children at Boysville visiting with Santa, 1952. (SCElicson.08.005)

Children at Boysville visiting with Santa, 1952. (SCElicson.08.005)

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.

Santa Claus on the roof of Joske's department store, downtown San Antonio, circa 1950-1970. (SCElicson.08.001)

Santa Claus on the roof of Joske's department store, downtown San Antonio, circa 1950-1970. (SCElicson.08.001)

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.

Merry Christmas!

Click here for a full citation of the documents and images included in this entry.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2008 12:28 pm

    I thought I’d let you know that heartily enjoy your blog. These photographs and stories especially made me eager to visit San Antonio and the Alamo archives.

    Thank you!

  2. Gil Venzer permalink
    September 27, 2009 2:09 am

    I would be interested in purchasing a book like the one described above. I’m especially interest in pictures ONLY of downtown San Antone. I would like pictures of the Camilla Room that was once house on the fourth floor of the former Joske’s and of Neisners, Kresses, Wal-Greens, Gibson, Jack n Jill, the Manhattan Restaurant, Vougue,Grants, Stowers, Wolf & Marx, etc. Houston Street is where my interest lies.
    If such a historical picture book exits, please inform me how I may procure one. Thank you.

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