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Sights & Sounds

I grew up in Oklahoma, where the season often brought snow (or, at least, sleet), throngs of off-key carolers at our doorstep, and aromatic pines that quickly dropped their needles into our shag carpeting. My younger brother and I fashioned tree-toppers and lopsided ornaments from cardboard and silver glitter, and on Christmas morning, we awakened to bleary-eyed folks sporting mussed hair and mischievous grins as they pointed out the Santa-size footprints in the fireplace.

When I was a kid, Christmastime wasn't slick. Perhaps that's why I like San Marcos' annual holiday fete, the charming Sights & Sounds of Christmas (December 3-5 this year), so much.

Don't get me wrong–the storybook setting truly dazzles. Hundreds of thousands of tiny white lights gleam from trees and bridges and reflect in the waters of the San Marcos River. A 50-foot tree of lights illuminates the festival's south end, and a gilded, mirrored carousel–complete with calliope and fancifully painted horses–anchors the north side. If Old Man Winter delivers an arctic blast, as he did last year, you'll even see revelers bundled up in parkas and mittens. Yes, it's very nearly picture-perfect.

The spirit, however, is that of a giant block party–one where everyone attends in comfy shoes, with kids in tow. Because so much goes on here–Santa's arrival by fire truck, barrel-train rides for kids, juggling acts, dance lessons, choir and dance performances, "sock skating," bobbing for apples, crafts demonstrations, and more–you never know what will tickle your fancy. Perhaps you'll witness teenagers flirting as they serve cups of hot cocoa, a winsome kid-and-puppy team marching in the pet parade, or an elderly couple walking hand-in-hand past an illuminated gazebo, and you'll know all is right with the world.

"This is something that the whole town does together," says longtime San Marcos resident Jo Wiegand. "I like to visit with people I haven't seen in a while, look at all the arts and crafts, and listen to the kids sing–that's always cute." Jo and her husband, Buddy (they met on a blind date as students at Southwest Texas some 50 years ago), have attended Sights & Sounds with assorted friends and family members since it began on the courthouse square in 1987. "It's grown since then," she says, "but it hasn't lost its small-town feel. I think the key is that everybody participates."

Jo's friend Ann Primer gestures toward her grandson, seven-year-old Cody Jackson, who nods excitedly. "Have you seen the donkey yet?" he asks. "That's Sedge–my donkey got chosen to be the Christmas donkey!"

Sedge the Christmas Donkey numbers among the dozens of sheep, llamas, camels, and donkeys that you can admire, pet, and pose with for a photo. Most of the critters congregate in the area designated as Old Bethlehem. Here, volunteers demonstrate how to make items like candles, necklaces, and wooden boats.

Fourteen-year-old Nicole McClusky of nearby Wimberley has volunteered in the Old Bethlehem area for two years. Among other jobs, she helps take care of the animals and shows folks how to make bread from barley flour. "I like leading the sheep around like a shepherd," she says. "A lot of people talk to you when you're leading a sheep around."

Indeed, there are a lot of people to talk to. Last year's event drew 30,000 people over three nights. They come to watch the Posadas procession reenact Mary and Joseph's search for lodging on Christmas Eve, to listen to holiday songs sung from the hearts of schoolkids, to sample candy apples and turkey legs, to string old-fashioned garlands of cranberries and popcorn, to stroll through the glittering lights, to shop for made-in-Texas gifts, to swap stories...but mostly to inaugurate a promising season that celebrates life, love, family, and friends.

San Marcos' 12th annual Sights & Sounds of Christmas festival (this year's theme is "River of Lights") takes place Dec. 3-5 on the banks of the San Marcos River, at Hopkins and C.M. Allen Parkway. From Interstate 35, take exit 206 (Aquarena Springs Dr.), and drive west. Very little parking is available on streets near the festival site, so it's recommended to park at Strahan Coliseum and ride a free shuttle to the festival. Shuttles run each evening from 5-10:30 and are wheelchair accessible.

General admission to the festival is free, though some attractions charge small fees. Carousel rides, for example, cost \$1.50, and photos with Santa cost \$4 (\$3 if you bring a can of food for the local food bank).

On Fri. and Sat. evening from 6-9, you can also take a shuttle to San Marcos' historic residential districts and tour 7 festively decorated homes. Sponsored by the Heritage Association of San Marcos, the Holiday Home Tour includes a stop for wassail and cookies. Buy tour tickets (\$5) at the festival Souvenir Booth.

For a schedule of events (Santa will arrive Thu., the candlelight Posadas procession is on Fri., and the pet parade takes place on Sat., for example), write to the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce, Box 2310, San Marcos 78667; 512/ 393-5900 or 888/200-5620. Visit the festival Web site at http://www.sights-n-sounds.org .

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