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Story behind River Walk’s 100,000 holiday lights and what squirrels have to do with it

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Holiday lights on San Antonio River Walk
Holiday lights on San Antonio River Walk (San Antonio River Walk Association)

SAN ANTONIO – Ever wondered why the holiday lights along the River Walk are taken down and put back up every year?

KSAT reached out to Paula Schechter with the San Antonio River Walk Association, as well as Superintendent of River Walk Operations Joeseph Cruz, and got some answers about the San Antonio tradition that started in 1974.

How many lights are used to light up the San Antonio River Walk?

100,000 - That’s 2,250 strings with 100,000 lights! The same number of lights is used each year and officials with the San Antonio River Authority have added lights along the Museum Reach section of the River Walk going up towards The Pearl.

How many workers does it take to string up the lights?

Two workers, a husband and wife team, prepare the lights starting in July and deliver them to the city by mid-September. They test each light strand, replace bulbs as needed and then prep the strands for “throwing” in the trees. It’s a technique. Each tree is assigned a specific bin with lights.

The reason the lights are taken down and re-hung each year is because of the adorable little squirrels who live on the River Walk. Apparently Christmas light wire is a delicacy.

The husband and wife team prepare, measure, and replace lights before rolling them into bundles and then contractors are hired to climb the trees and hang each light strand. This entails the climber ascending the tree as high up in the center of the canopy as possible, and flinging the rolled-up light strands over the tree canopy.

Climbers are on a two-way radio with a ground person, who lines the climber up for each light strand so the strands are spaced out as evenly as possible along the outside of the trees.

Usually, it’s four tree climbing contractors and two city electricians, working in one area in the mornings near restaurants and hotel areas, and in less crowded areas in the afternoons.

How many days are the lights up?

Each year is a little different. The lights are turned on every year the day after Thanksgiving at the start of the Ford Holiday River Parade. They always stay up through New Years Day. This year they will be on through the night of Jan. 13.

How many years have lights been strung up?

It started in 1974. The Downtown Merchants Association decided NOT to light Houston Street and gave the lights the River Walk Association. That was the beginning.

The holiday lights along the River Walk are a joint project between the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio River Walk Association.

Cruz told KSAT the process of putting up the lights starts the day after Labor Day and is typically finished by the end of October.

“We continue testing the lights in November, depending on what kind of weather - high winds, storms, etc. - that occurs, and complete an entire test run the week of Thanksgiving,” Cruz said.

The process of taking the lights down is quicker, “by mid-January, we are removing the lights and are complete with the project by the end of February,” Cruz said.

There’s a solution, albeit a costly one, to keep the lights up year-round.

“We would love to find a generous benefactor to subsidize a type of lighting that does not require the removal and rehanging," Schechter said. "The technology exists but comes with a million-dollar-plus price tag. The bonus would be to program the lights to be green on St. Patrick’s Day, purple, green and gold for Mardi Gras, red for Valentine’s Day, etc.”


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