This article has been updated.

Houston Hernandez was on his way to meet his dad for breakfast Tuesday morning when his day took an unexpected detour. The 28-year-old skateboarder said he was irked at first to see his normal morning bus stop at Travis Park for VIA Route 14 had been closed, and the route had been delayed. 

That’s when he caught sight of the 50-foot Christmas tree being unloaded from the back of a black 18-wheeler right in front of the bus stop, and decided breakfast would have to wait. 

“I’ve seen the tree [in Travis Park] lit up, but I’ve never seen them putting it up before,” Hernandez said. He and other passersby looked on as a group of about a dozen vest-clad workers unloaded the tree with a crane and cautiously maneuvered it to the middle of Travis Park where it will stand for the next several weeks. 

Having recently fallen on hard times after losing his temp agency job in the economic downturn, Hernandez said it’s moments like seeing that tree arrive that give him life.

“I stumbled upon this, and it’s pretty cool,” he said, his colorful skateboard tucked under one arm. “This is a dark time in my life, and I’m sure it is for a lot of people. It’s things like this that make it easier to get through.”

Houston Hernandez watches as the Christmas tree is delivered to Travis Park. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

2020 H-E-B Christmas tree salutes Texans

Donated by local grocery giant H-E-B, the Christmas tree will be decorated with more than 10,000 lights and dozens of handmade ornaments in the upcoming days. This year’s Christmas tree was sourced from Northern Michigan near Lake Michigan, the company said in a statement. 

The tree will be themed with Texas decor this year, including Texas flags that light up; cowboy-themed ornaments; and red, white, and blue lights, H-E-B spokeswoman Julie Bedingfield said. 

“We want to recognize the resilience of Texans early on in the pandemic,” Bedingfield said. “At H-E-B, we’ve adopted this phrase of ‘Texans helping Texans,’ because we knew it would take all us to fight COVID and to continue to do so, so this year’s tree is a nod to Texas itself.”

Crew members prepare the 50-foot Christmas tree for placement in Travis Park. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

The tree will be turned on during the 36th annual H-E-B Tree Lighting which starts at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 27, and will be completely virtual this year for the first time, she said.

The tree lights will be illuminated at 7:20 p.m., and a prerecorded musical performance by Mariachi Las Altenas will follow, Bedingfield said. 

While the ceremony will be virtual this year, Bedingfield said H-E-B wants to encourage everyone to walk by the tree or take photos of it when they have time as well as to wear a mask and socially distance themselves from other groups while doing so. 

H-E-B will also be passing out 10,000 holiday goodie bags at several store locations Friday from 2 to 6 p.m. for San Antonians to celebrate the tree lighting from home, Bedingfield said. The goodie bags will contain H-E-B-brand hot chocolate, cookies, items to write letters to Santa Claus, and festive reindeer ears to wear, she said. Participating stores include the H-E-B locations at Marbach Road and Loop 410, Zarzamora Street and Military Drive, Olmos Park, and W.W. White Road.

“We all know the holiday spirit and our holiday traditions are extra needed this year with the pandemic,” Bedingfield said. “Bringing in the tree is one of our most nerve-wracking and most favorite days of the year; it really heralds in ‘The holidays are here,’ and we can bring some joy to everyone.”

In total, H-E-B commits more than $250,000 each year to the transportation, decorations, and lighting of the tree, H-E-B said in its statement. The H-E-B Christmas tree has been housed in Travis Park annually since 2017.

Prior to 2017, the H-E-B Christmas tree was placed before the Alamo each year, a tradition that occured for more than 30 years before shifting to Travis Park in 2017 due to City efforts to “activate more of downtown” and offer “more room for holiday programming.”

H-E-B is also donating a smaller tree approximately 20-feet in height to the City to put up and decorate in front of the Alamo this year, Bedingfield said.

There will also be a smaller Christmas tree in Milam Park provided by the San Antonio Parks Foundation and Friends of Milam Park which will feature ornaments decorated by kids at the San Antonio Children’s Hospital, and a tree in Main Plaza provided by the Main Plaza Conservancy, Saunders said.

With the assistance of machinery, the Christmas tree is placed in the center of Travis Park. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

This year the River Walk shines early

Historically both the H-E-B Christmas Tree and the Christmas lights adorning the River Walk have been lit the Friday after Thanksgiving, kicking off the official start of San Antonio’s holiday season, Bedingfield said. 

This year the 100,000 lights on the River Walk, put up by the City of San Antonio’s Center City Development and Operations Department, will adorn 175 trees and 30 bridges, said City spokeswoman Kelly Kapaun Saunders.

“Crews begin putting up the holiday lights the day after Labor Day, and it takes about six to eight weeks to complete, depending on weather conditions,” Saunders said. “If the lights were laid side by side they would cover 25 linear miles. [They] cover 2.5 miles of the River Walk.”

During the City’s coronavirus briefing Thursday evening, Mayor Ron Nirenberg made a video appearance from his home, where he is currently quarantining after a possible COVID-19 exposure, to announce the City is turning on the lights early this year.

“[This year has been] one of the most trying in our recent history,” Nirenberg said. “If you’re like me you … can’t wait for that holiday spirit to come around again. We need it now more than ever. So why wait?”

The mayor counted down from five before “virtually” turning on the lights along the River Bend. The lights on the North Channel and Museum Reach, put up by the San Antonio River Authority, turned on Monday evening. The lights will remain on through the New Year, Saunders said.

As a frequenter of Downtown San Antonio, Hernandez said he is especially looking forward to seeing all the Christmas lights on around the city in the upcoming days.

“They’ll really be a light in the darkness this year,” he said.

Disclosure: H-E-B and VIA Metropolitan Transit are San Antonio Report business members.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.