Join in a festival holiday celebration this year at a southeast Texas town where Santa is transported by “reinsteer” and a historic Spanish mission is decorated with lights.
By Marion Amberg
Some Christmas travel destinations quickly fade from memory, just like shooting stars. Not so with Goliad, Texas, the “Star of the South.” Goliad’s stellar attractions shine year-round, but at Christmas the sights and sounds are out of this world.
Imagine a 253-year-old Spanish mission outlined in 20,000 white lights, a spectacle to behold and photograph. A re-enactment of the story of Jesus’ birth called las Posadas wends uphill at nearby Presidio La Bahia, a reconstructed Spanish fort. In Goliad, even the Texas longhorn cattle get into the holiday spirit by becoming Santa’s “reinsteers” in a festive parade. And the proper way to send holiday mail is by Pony Express.
While some local historians called Goliad the “front door to Texas” (nine flags have flown over the town), RVers are most smitten with its charm and tall tales. Where else is a funeral door a tourist attraction? Is there another town whose old clock tower has its faces painted on?
Goliad (pronounced GO-lee-ad) is located inside the triangle formed by the Texas towns of Houston, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi. Specifically, it’s in the southeast part of the state at the intersection of U.S. 59 and U.S. 183, 150 miles southwest of Houston and 100 miles southeast of San Antonio. This location puts it within easy driving range of many of Texas’ other historic cities, too, such as Victoria and Austin.
The third-oldest Spanish settlement in Texas, Goliad is surrounded by reminders of its tumultuous past. One National Historic Landmark, Presidio La Bahia (Spanish for “fort of the bay”), is the most fought-over fort in Lone Star State history and was the site of the first declaration of Texas independence.
Presidio La Bahia was first established by the Spanish near the current sites of Matagorda Bay and Victoria, Texas. When the Indians rejected the Franciscan friars’ attempts to convert them to Christianity, the missionaries forged onward, and in 1749 began anew on the San Antonio River near present-day Goliad. The presidio and a small town called La Bahia sprang up on one bank of the river, the mission on the other. Passage was by canoe.
Peace on earth? Not yet. In 1821 Mexico won its independence from Spain and took command of the fortress. Eight years later, while still under Mexican rule, the town of La Bahia changed its name to Goliad, an anagram for “Hidalgo,” the hero-priest of the Mexican Revolution. (The “h” is missing because it’s silent in Spanish and could not be scrambled.)
On October 9, 1835, Texas rebels captured the garrison and the town in one of the first battles of the Texas Revolution. The first Declaration of Texas Independence was signed in the presidio chapel on December 20 of that year. Initially the independence fighters were badly beaten by the Mexicans, and 342 men, including Colonel James Fannin Jr., surrendered. On March 27, 1836, by order of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Fannin and his men were massacred. A monument marks their graves a few hundred yards from Presidio La Bahia. Less than a month later, on April 21, the Texans, inspired by the battle cry “Remember Goliad,” gained a decisive victory over General Santa Anna’s troops at San Jacinto and won their freedom from Mexico.
Across the San Antonio River from Presidio La Bahia is Mission Espiritu Santo, another true Texas legend. Mission Espiritu Santo is reportedly the birthplace of Texas cattle ranching. In 1778, as one tale has it, mission “cowboys” branded more than 15,000 head of longhorns. The cattle helped to feed the people at the missions as well as others throughout Spanish colonial settlements as far away as Louisiana.
The mission was secularized in 1831 after 110 years of service, and the building was neglected until 1848, when it was converted into a public school. The mission was rebuilt during the 1930s by Civilian Conservation Corps personnel. Today it is part of Goliad State Historical Park. Its splendid interpretive dioramas depict the friars and Indians engaged in raising cattle, spinning and weaving, and carpentry. Indian and Spanish artifacts also are on display.
But secrets lie within the mission that only a guided tour can reveal. “Did you notice how sparsely the church is furnished?” a guide asked us. The interior is painted with bright orange stripes, which is exactly as the original appeared. But, unlike most Spanish missions, the church is conspicuously absent of many statues. Nor are there any pews. The Indians stood, and when they were not standing, they knelt.
One curious decoration is a soundboard on the altar. Make a reverential noise nearby and it echoes throughout the church.
“The soundboard was like a megaphone,” the guide explained. “It projected the priest’s voice and probably kept him from going crazy listening to his own echo.”
The chapel’s most intriguing feature is the tiny funeral door, marked with a skull and crossbones. Funeral processions entered through the church’s main doors, then exited through this “door of the dead.” But, why is the door so small? The answer appears to have long since been buried.
The Goliad State Historical Park complex consists of the mission and 178 acres of wooded, rolling hills. It’s located 1/4-mile south of Goliad on U.S. 183. Other important sites there and nearby include the ruins of Mission Rosario; the Fannin Memorial; Fannin Battleground State Historic Site; and General Ignacio Zaragoza Birthplace State Historic Site at La Bahia. A camping and picnicking area, as well as fishing spots along the San Antonio River, also are available. The park is open year-round and offers full-hookup sites; for details, see the “Area Campgrounds” section at the end of this article.
Many first-time visitors confuse the presidio with the mission. Both have a chapel and both are massive bulwarks of stone. Yet they served different functions. Missions were used to evangelize and instruct the various bands of Indians, while presidios provided protection.
The reconstructed presidio fort and museum are stellar, but the presidio’s Our Lady of Loreto Chapel is especially heaped with grace. It was built to serve the needs of soldiers and Spanish settlers and is one of the oldest churches in America. The altar’s stunning fresco, however, is a mere 56 years old. Painted in 1946 by Antonio Garcia of Corpus Christi, the scene depicts the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would be the mother of the Christ Child.
“From history, we know this incident did not take place in south Texas,” the tour guide quipped. Regardless, the artist put a little Texas into his work. A rattlesnake, a cactus, and a miniature Our Lady of Loreto Chapel are in the background of the scene. Look carefully at Gabriel’s left foot, and you’ll notice that he has six toes. When asked about this one day, the artist replied, “Do you know how many toes angels have?”
The altar’s Our Lady of Loreto statue is more than 200 years old. But Our Lady of Loreto wasn’t always around to protect the chapel; in fact, there was a time when the faithful protected the statue. During the Texas Revolution, Mexican settlers rescued the artifact and kept it out of harm’s way. The statue was returned around 1853 when Bishop John M. Odin purchased the chapel from the town of Goliad for $1,000. When the bishop made the final payment and received the deed in 1855, he discovered the church had not just purchased the chapel, but the entire presidio grounds, fort and all. Presidio de Nuestra Senora Santa Maria de Loreto de Bahia del Espiritu Santo (the fort’s formal name) is operated by the Catholic Diocese of Victoria.
Restored to its 1836 appearance, the fort’s bastions offer a sweeping view of the presidio grounds and quadrangle. Other noted features include the water gate, a prison cell, and a cross-shaped keyhole in the chapel door. A museum is housed in the former officers’ quarters and kitchen.
The presidio is a mere 1/4-mile away from the state park and is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. (closed on some major holidays). An active parish uses Our Lady of Loreto Chapel, and Mass is offered there on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. For details, call (361) 645-3752.
The population of La Bahia (before the town’s name was changed to Goliad) in 1804 was 1,600. The population of Goliad today is about 1,975. Local legend blames the slow population growth on a priest who chastised some cowboys for their ungodly ways. One unrepentant cowboy became so infuriated that he began pistol-whipping the priest. When no one came to the padre’s aid, the priest cursed the town: “May Goliad never be any larger than it is today.”
If the story is true, the curse proved to be a blessing in disguise, for Goliad is steeped in 19th-century charm. The courthouse district is reminiscent of Spanish villages, where merchant buildings consist of shops downstairs and residences upstairs. Following are a few of the town’s walking tour “legends.”
Built in 1894, the Goliad County Courthouse is the county’s third such structure and was built from stones used in the second courthouse, circa 1865. Currently, funds from a grant are being used to restore the courthouse to its original appearance inside and out, including a clock tower that was demolished in a 1942 hurricane.
“This time they promise there’s going to be a real clock,” said Doris Freer, chairman of the Goliad County Historical Commission. “The old clock was right twice a day — the faces were painted on!”
No yellow ribbons are tied around the old live oak tree on the courthouse lawn, and for good reason. This was the Hanging Tree, site of swift frontier justice. Between 1846 and 1870, folks convicted of capital crimes at the courthouse were immediately taken outside to the tree. Another historic live oak located nearby is the Baptist Oak, where a dozen pious folks gathered in 1849 to form the area’s first Baptist church. If only the outlaws had found their way to the Baptist tree first.
The quaint Market House Museum once housed 12-foot-by-24-foot stalls that were rented to meat and produce peddlers. Today it is home to a display of historical artifacts and the town’s chamber of commerce offices. The museum is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. At the Blacksmith Shop, hundreds of cattle brands are burned into windows and doors now, rather than hides. All of the brands were designed or made by one of the shop’s three owners.
A Goliad Christmas
Goliad’s glory is never more beautiful than during the Christmas season. So forget the crowds and be one of the wise RVers who follows the “Star of the South” on Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7, for Christmas in Goliad.
The event commences on Friday evening at 7:00 p.m. with an illuminated parade around the courthouse square. It’s a small but charming crew, with some entrants going around twice. Ever see a longhorn with lights on its horns? Here’s your chance. Be sure to peruse the fine arts and crafts booths set up on the square, all part of a juried display. Typically, more than 85 booths are open beginning on Friday evening and continuing through Saturday. Always a favorite with tourists, the jalapeno jelly is guaranteed to fire up anyone’s holidays!
As part of the occasion, Mission Espiritu Santo is bedecked with luminarias and outlined with 20,000 white lights. The effect is truly heavenly and a delight to photographers. An evening concert is performed during the Christmas in Goliad festivities, enhancing the sacred mood.
On Saturday morning, join Santa for breakfast and watch as a letter is sent from Goliad to San Antonio via the Pony Express Christmas run. At approximately 8:00 a.m. the rider arrives at the Goliad Courthouse Square, where a governor’s proclamation is read and the letter starts its journey. The rider stops along the way in towns along the historic La Bahia-Alamo corridor. To commemorate the run, a special Pony Express postmark embellishes cards and letters mailed from the unit on the Courthouse Square. Patrons are advised to arrive early to avoid the holiday “stampede.”
Santa Claus returns at noon on Saturday riding in a sleigh drawn by a “reinsteer.” Live entertainment offered at the North Pole and South Pole stages keeps spirits high. Everyone will kick up their heels at the holiday “Hats and Boots with History” display at the Market House Museum.
A las Posadas procession takes place at Presidio La Bahia Saturday evening at dusk. This Mexican Christmas custom re-enacts Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem.
For a complete list of this year’s Christmas in Goliad events and other holiday celebrations, contact the Goliad County Chamber of Commerce or the county historical commission using the information below. And do try to visit Goliad during its holiday celebration — and keep it on your list of travel spots regardless of the time of year.
Goliad County Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 606
Goliad, TX 77963
Goliad County Historical Commission
205 S. Market St.
Goliad, TX 77963
Goliad State Historical Park
108 Park Road 6
Goliad, TX 77963-3206
(512) 389-8900 (campground rates, reservations
Offers 20 full-hookup and 10 no-hookup sites, plus opportunities for swimming, picnicking, bird-watching, hiking, and river fishing.
Aranama RV Park
2205 La Bahia Road
Goliad, TX 77963
Situated 2 miles south of Goliad with 25 full-hookup sites; phone hookups are available. Amenities include showers, a swimming pool, a recreation hall, fishing, and bird-watching.
Coleto Creek Park and Reservoir
P.O. Box 68
Fannin, TX 77960
Located at a 3,100-acre lake approximately 14 miles east of Goliad with 58 RV sites with water and electrical hookups, a dump station, showers, picnic tables, a swimming area, a lighted pier, fishing, and hiking.
Encino Grande RV Park
Route 2, Box 53B
Goliad, TX 77963
Offers pull-through spaces with 30-amp hookups, a four-hole golf course, and picnic tables.