San Antonio River Walk holiday lights tradition continues after nearly 50 years

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

San Antonio River Walk lights (Nan Palmero, Flickr)

SAN ANTONIO – The lighting of the San Antonio River Walk every year for the holiday season is a decades-old holiday tradition.

Viewing of the lights is always free and some nights you can also catch carolers crooning down the river.

Ever wondered why the holiday lights along the River Walk are taken down and put back up every year instead of just leaving them up year-round?

Apparently, Christmas light wire is a delicacy for the squirrels who live along the River Walk. The lights must come down after the holidays to stop the squirrels from snacking on the strands of lights.

There are 2,250 strings with 100,000 lights that light up the towering bald cypress trees that line the River Walk every year.

This year the lights will turn on Nov. 25 and will remain on from dusk until dawn, every night, through dawn on January 9.

The San Antonio River Walk Association’s website says the lights will turn on around 5:30 p.m. and turn off around 8 a.m. each day.

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 at least New Year’s Day.

Paula Schechter, director of marketing at the San Antonio River Walk Association, and Joeseph Cruz, Superintendent of River Walk Operations, previously talked to KSAT about the annual holiday tradition of lighting up the River Walk, which started in 1974.

Schechter said the lights went up for the first time in 1974 after the Downtown Merchants Association decided not to light Houston Street. The lights were given to the River Walk Association and that’s how the tradition started.

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

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, Schechter explained.

Contractors are hired to climb the cypress trees and hang each strand by flinging the rolled-up light strands over the tree canopy.

Typically, four tree-climbing contractors and two city electricians work in high-traffic areas near restaurants and hotels in the mornings and less crowded areas in the afternoon to hang the lights.

“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 told KSAT.

In the past few years, officials with the San Antonio River Authority have added lights along the Museum Reach section of the River Walk going up towards the Pearl.

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

About the Author:

Mary Claire Patton has been a journalist with KSAT 12 since 2015. She has reported on several high-profile stories during her career at KSAT and specializes in trending news and things to do around Texas and San Antonio.