Do you love the Christmas season? Or does the holiday make you into a Grinch? No matter. Head to Grapevine. Texas, that is. This modest-sized town (population 50,000) has been designated by the Texas State Senate as the Christmas Capital of Texas. It may, in fact, be the most joyously Christmassy place on the planet.
Grapevine, Texas, conveniently located near the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) between the mega-cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, celebrates Christmas for more than 40 days with 1,400 separate Christmas-themed events. We’re talking Christmas parades, ice sculptures, dinner theater, live music, North Pole Express trains, Charlie Brown displays, holiday movies, Christmas wine trains, twinkle light boat parades, scuba-diving Santa and elves, thousands of lights and Christmas decorations, and more, so much more.
Grapevine’s Transformation: A Christmas Miracle
How did Grapevine become Christmas Central? According to long-time Grapevine City Councilwoman Sharron Spencer, more than 30 years ago, the city had a half-dozen tin foil Christmas street decorations. “When I asked the City Council for $2,500 to buy some decorations, they turned me down. Today, we spend $150,000 a year on Christmas decorations.”
Like a lot of small towns, Grapevine was becoming just another anonymous bedroom community. But visionaries like Spencer, who now often dons a Mrs. Santa outfit during the season to greet children, and others believed their little historic town could be more.
Little by little, they began to re-make their city into a Christmas playground in the winter and a noted wine destination in warmer months. “It takes a long time,” says Paul W. McCallum (aka PW), who is the Executive Director of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and grows wine grapes in Grapevine. “You have to get everyone, including all the businesses, on board.” (Is it a coincidence that PW, who was instrumental in the town’s amazing transformation, sports a luxurious white mustache and beard and bears a striking resemblance to St. Nick?)
And onboard they got. Today, historic Grapevine’s Main Street’s beautiful Victorian buildings are festooned with ribbons, wreaths, sparkling balls, and twinkling lights. It’s a veritable riot of color and light. A massive 30-foot Christmas tree with lights coordinated to Christmas music dominates the centrally-located, grassy expanse of Town Square where kids and parents frolic through life-size Whoville structures. Many visitors stroll Main Street in Christmas-themed sweaters, sweatshirts, hats, and even pajamas. And children of all ages, their eyes wide with wonder, are everywhere.
A Weary Traveler’s Journey
A group of friends and I traveled to Grapevine in early December to get a dose of the Christmas spirit and did we ever. Before I arrived, I’d been working way too hard and, I have to admit, I was feeling anything but Christmassy. In fact, I felt like I didn’t really have time for the holiday season—or for this trip. However, four days in Grapevine and I’ve reclaimed some of the Christmas magic I felt as a child.
Here are a few Grapevine highlights that lit my Christmas fire:
Christmas Parade. We kicked off our Grapevine Christmas adventure with the Christmas Parade, the biggest small town parade I’ve ever seen. This parade is truly a community event. Main Street is blocked off for the evening and locals and visitors alike line both sides of the street. We watched the parade from the second story balcony of the impressive Visitor Information Center that houses the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and it proved the perfect, bird’s eye perch. Braving chilly temperatures, we watched 100 decorated entries celebrate the season, including school bands, Dad’s clubs, local politicians, sports teams, area businesses, police and fire departments, and more.
Main Street Stroll. Unlike many towns, Grapevine has kept its historic downtown alive and vibrant. During the holidays, Main Street transforms into a Christmas marvel. We shopped Main Street’s 80+ unique, locally-owned shops, boutiques, jewelry stores, collectible shops and more, including Crowned by Grace, The British Emporium, One Posh Place, Underwood Boot Company, and Good Things for All Seasons. Each is decorated for the holiday and everyone offered interesting and different items. We found the perfect fluffy Lamb Chop for a friend who raises and collects lambs.
For a break, we stopped at Bingham Family Vineyards tasting room where some of us enjoyed at a glass of Texas wine. I was amazed to learn that Texas is fifth in the nation in wine production and Grapevine is one of those wine tasting hot spots.
Bingham’s also serves cocoa during the holidays and I ordered a rich, custom-made cup of hot cocoa topped with whipped cream, sprinkles, chopped chocolate, and chocolate-peppermint pieces. Yum!
Then, because I hadn’t quite had my fill of chocolate, we stopped in at Dr. Sue’s Chocolates. This chocolate shop is actually owned and operated by a real medical doctor, Sue Miller, M.D., who is both a chocolatier and practicing physician. Dr. Sue became interested in the health benefits of chocolate. “I found people are much more willing to talk about diet and health if chocolate is involved,” she quips.
Dr. Sue’s specializes in healthful, 54% dark chocolate that’s non-GMO with no added artificial ingredients, fillers or preservatives. She uses only high-quality French Valrona chocolate or Belgium Callebaut or Belcolade chocolate. She adds healthful ingredients like hazelnuts, honey, dried cranberries, and cocoa nibs. We enjoyed a cup of their dark hot chocolate and bought some delectable chocolate hazelnut toffee.
A Farmhand’s Breakfast. At the turn of the century, Grapevine was still filled with homestead farms. Nash’s Farm was built in 1869 and originally encompassed 500 acres. Today, the City of Grapevine owns the farm and the original 500 acres have shrunk to a little more than five acres. It’s operated as a demonstration farm where farm manager Cody and his staff dress and live as if it were the 19th century.
Throughout the year, Nash’s offers a number of educational programs, all focused on authentic, turn-of-the-century fun. During the holiday season, things really crank up with events like ornament decorating, parlor games, and sweet treats. We joined Cody and his farm staff for a farmhand’s breakfast that featured foods grown and made on the farm, including warm biscuits (baked in the wood-fired stove), hard-cooked eggs, house smoked and salted ham, pickles, chow chow relish, pickled beets and okra, several jams and jellies, coffee and tea, and “Trapper’s Fruit salad” with dried fruits with cream and a bit of rum. It was all delicious and made me appreciate how much work goes into making a meal when you have to grow and process everything on the table.
SEA LIFE Grapevine Comes Alive. The holiday magic in Grapevine isn’t limited to downtown. Shopping areas like Grapevine Mills go all out to dress in holiday finery and celebrate the season. SEA LIFE Grapevine Aquarium, located inside this mall, is an impressive, kid-friendly aquarium and educational center that gets into the holiday spirit. I was especially impressed with their “breed, rescue, and protect” mission. In an effort to reduce pressure on natural ocean ecosystems, SEA LIFE breeds popular fish like clownfish and sea horses to stock other aquariums so that they don’t have to remove fish from the sea. They also rescue and rehabilitate injured sea creatures and help protect the world’s oceans by educating kids and adults about issues like plastic pollution. Many of their exhibits, including an impressive 160,000-gallon saltwater tank with a walk-through tunnel, are educational, interactive, and kid-friendly. During the holidays, Santa and his elf dive in this tank to the delight of kids of all ages.
Getting Crafty. What are the holidays without hands-on crafts? We headed downtown to VETRO Glassblowing Studio & Gallery where you can make your own blown glass ornament. For $50 per person, you select colors of glass and then head back to the glass furnace to help the artist shape molten glass into a unique Christmas ornament. It felt both exciting and a little intimidating to hold that big metal rod with molten glass in the 2,000-degree furnace. After making our ornaments, the glass rested for 12-15 hours, slowly cooling in a temperature-controlled environment. When we picked them up the following day, I was amazed at the beauty of my one-of-a-kind, swirly purple, white and blue ornament.
Another day, we headed to Painting with a Twist, a fun, paint-it-yourself studio where we used acrylic paints to paint our own Santa portraits. You can bring your own wine and, every time the instructor rings the bell, you’re supposed to take a sip.
In the studio, each of us had our own easel and canvas and the instructor took us step-by-step through painting the fun Santa face that had been drawn onto our canvases. We laughed a lot and I was surprised at how good those Santa paintings looked!
Gaylord Texan Christmas. We stayed at the massive, Texas-themed Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center and these people do Christmas up big. From poinsettias to candy canes to gingerbread houses and oversized sparkling Christmas balls, everywhere you look, it’s Christmas. They use more than 2 million twinkling lights, 5,600 feet of garland, 15,000 ornaments, 75 Christmas trees, and 2,000 poinsettias to decorate the huge, nine-story glass atrium/courtyard. They offer events like cookie decorating, photos and breakfast with Santa, and plenty of festive shops with holiday-oriented gifts.
The Gaylord’s biggest Christmas-themed event is ICE!, a 14,000 square-foot, walk-through ice sculpture exhibit (parkas provided for the chilly 9 degree temperatures). The hotel brings in 40 master ice carvers from Harbin, China, who sculpt 2 million pounds of ice into amazing, colorful ice stories. This year’s theme was “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and featured giant Christmas trees, gifts, children tucked in their beds, and more. There was also snow tubing and a two-story ice side. I laid back on the slide and effortlessly slid down with my slick parka acting as a lubricant. However, halfway down, I sat up and my jeans (not so slick) stopped me in my tracks. I ended up butt-scooting the rest of the way down!
A Wolfy Holiday. Grapevine’s Great Wolf Lodge also celebrates Christmas in a big way and we headed over for a delectable small plate meal and hot mulled wine. They’ve transformed their massive lobby into Snowland, a winter wonderland that features a 30-foot Christmas tree, 51 lighted trees, a snow-making machine, and a life-sized gingerbread house that guests can reserve for a holiday snack party.
While we were there, Santa, with his real flowing white hair and beard, made his way across the lobby to meet with the many children lined up to see him. My heart nearly stopped when he paused right in front of me and, with his eyes twinkling, asked if I’d been a good girl. “Yes,” I croaked, sounding like a terrified five-year-old. I wonder if he knew I was fibbing just a bit.
A Train to the North Pole. The North Pole Express is one of Grapevine’s fun events that sells out every year. We boarded an antique Victorian train car and, with Christmas carols blasting, chugged out of the station on our way to the North Pole to meet Santa. About halfway there, the train stopped to take on a special passenger, Mrs. Claus. She came into our car smiling broadly, stopping at each seat.
When she got to me, she looked into my eyes and smiled kindly. “Do you believe in Santa?” she asked. “Yes, I believe,” I told her. “Wonderful,” she said, and handed me a heavy “I Believe” bell I could later use to let the man himself know. I rang that bell like crazy all the way to the North Pole.
The train headed back to the station, but when we arrived, it had cleverly been transformed into the North Pole. It was even snowing! We made our way through the snow and a forest of Christmas trees to Santa’s Workshop where the Old Elf met with the kids and all of us rang our I Believe bells and were treated to tasty Frosty Chocolate Snow Milk in a souvenir mug.
Dismay in the Manger. One evening, we headed downtown to the Texas Star Dinner Theater for a tasty meal (fish, chicken, chicken fried steak or eggplant parmesan) and a rollicking fun Christmas-themed murder mystery. While our team didn’t guess the murderer, we had a great time laughing at the antics of these outrageously funny actors.
Farewell Opry. On our final night, we went to the classic Palace Theater for “A Grapevine Opry Christmas.” For more than 25 years, musician Rocky Gribble and talented local performers sang and played every week at the Grapevine Opry. Since Rocky retired, the company only performs once or twice a year and the Christmas show is really special. The show was fast-paced and fun with nationally-recognized musicians performing country and traditional Christmas songs, often with a fun, laugh-at-themselves twists.
Four days in Grapevine, Texas, the Christmas Capital of Texas, passed for me in a joyous, light-filled blur. Our group met for one last time at the Grand Hyatt DFW for breakfast with a special guest. Mrs. Claus, aka Councilwoman Sharron Spencer Rogers, greeted us with the gift of special Grapevine Christmas t-shirts. As we tucked into delicious breakfast chilaquiles and eggs benedict, the 40-year Grapevine resident said, “Christmas in Grapevine is extraordinary because the people here really care. They love this community year round and it makes Christmas in Grapevine even more special.”
That’s for sure, Mrs. Claus. I know I’m taking some of that special Grapevine, Texas, Christmas spirit home with me. –Bobbie Hasselbring, RTF Editor, Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor