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Xmas in Small-Town Texas

Every Christmas, my husband and I and our boys, Gus, seven, and Jeb, five, play freeze tag, our version of a winter sport here in the Texas Hill Country. We play it only at this time of year, and only in one place: under the million lights that coil around 42 live oak trees at the local power company's headquarters. It's the most spectacular of the many electric displays in the alluring old towns between Austin and San Antonio, and it seems to bring on hyper-animation in our kids, as if they themselves were plugged in. When one of them is tagged he twirls dramatically with his face bent up to the trees, like Michele Kwan in a full layback spin, and collapses to the ground, "frozen," staring up at the glittering branches.

Some places have a white Christmas. The Hill Country has a light Christmas. From Thanksgiving to New Year's, the area gets as bright and flashy as a neon cowboy, as 13 towns strain the power grid with their gumdrop gaudiness. The tradition was kindled 15 years ago, when a few women in Johnson City held bake sales to raise money to cloak the Blanco County Courthouse in strands of white pinhead lights. The electrical extravagance was contagious, and soon other towns were lighting up and organizing Christmas markets and parades. These days more than 7 million bulbs are turned on, and from miles away you can see the towns emitting a corona of green-gold iridescence.

But the luminous show isn't the only reason to visit the Hill Country in what I think of as Endless Autumn (December temperatures often reach the sixties). During the day you can hike in tall grass the white-blond color of potato chips; paddle along (or fish in) one of the absurdly green rivers; or go horseback riding, since visiting Texas without playing cowboy is like going to Aruba and never putting a toe near sand.

Don't exhaust yourself, though, because you'll want to be out and about when darkness falls. Here, a four-day itinerary to fill your days with enthralling activities—and put you in exactly the right spots when the lights come on.

Day One

Fly into San Antonio or Austin; then hang around till "dark-thirty," as they call dusk in these parts, to take in the urban lights (see "Switched-on Cities," sidebar). From San Antonio, head to the Guadalupe River Ranch in Boerne (rhymes with Ernie), about 45 minutes away. This 330-acre spread will be your base for forays into Hill Country towns over the next two days, after which you can relocate to Canyon of the Eagles Lodge in the north (90 minutes from Austin and two hours from San Antonio) for two nights. Or you can start in Austin and do the tour in reverse.

Day Two

After a morning of hiking, horseback riding, or kayaking at the Guadalupe River Ranch, drive 15 minutes (Interstate 10 to Waring-Welfare Road) for lunch at the Po-Po Family Restaurant—look for the red neon eats sign on the former dance hall. Open since the 1930's, the place is famous for its fried chicken and its collection of 2,100 plates from around the world.

Continue down the Welfare-Waring Road and take Route 1621 to Comfort, where streets are lined with 19th-century limestone buildings the color of buttermilk. Every Friday afternoon, locals set up card tables right on High Street for a raging game of dominoes. If you know how to play "42," you can join in.

Head 18 miles north on Route 87 to Fredericksburg, the hub of the Hill Country and a staunchly German town (settlers began arriving in the mid 1800's). My boys' preferred stop is the National Museum of the Pacific War, which houses the Japanese mini-sub captured at Pearl Harbor as well as a re-created PT-boat dock. Hang out in town until about six to watch the arched windows and porch balustrades along Main Street go aglow. Then drive 10 miles west on Route 87 to the Hill Top Café, an old gas station turned roadhouse with the quirkiest coupling of cuisines—Cajun and Greek (one of the owners is from east Texas, the other is of Greek heritage). Kids get a kick out of the jumble of neon signs and license plates, and everyone loves the shrimp gumbo and spanakopita.

Route 1376 will take you back to the ranch via the most famous Texas town that's barely a town (only 10 acres). Luckenbach—which Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson put on the map ("Out in Luckenbach, Texas, ain't nobody feelin' no pain")—is mostly a collection of barn buildings patched long ago with old metal advertisements. The dance hall bursts with twangy tunes and dancers doing the two-step. We've taken our boys here since the oldest was wearing tiny cowboy boots and the youngest was still in booties.

Day Three

Your destination this morning is Blanco, my own stomping grounds (use Highway 281). To see locals in their native habitat, swing by the Blanco Bowling Club & Café, where ranchers congregate as early as 5:30 a.m. The bowling arcade in back has nine pins that are set by hand; out front are meringue pies as high as Lyle Lovett's hair (the man himself counts this among his favorite diners). Before leaving town, stop by the Deutsch Apple for dense, moist apple cake—the kids and I once gobbled a whole loaf in our five-minute drive home.

Work off that sugar rush at Pedernales Falls State Park, 30 minutes up 281, then east on Route 2766. For us, going to the park is like a trip to the beach—there's a sandy bank of crushed limestone, and the water tumbling over a series of sloped rock faces sounds like the crashing of waves.

Back in Johnson City, a small crowd gathers at the Blanco County Courthouse just before dusk. Kids do cartwheels on the lawn while everyone waits for the ta-da moment. When the lights finally crackle on at about six, the red-roofed building is transformed into a gilded jewel box. Hire a horse-drawn carriage to take you to the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, the site of our freeze-tag game. On weekends, Santa sits here listening to ardent requests, but even he plays second fiddle to the coruscating canopy behind him.

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