If you’re decking the halls with boughs of holly, and your stockings are hung by the chimney with care—but you can’t quite get into the Christmas spirit and find yourself being a little Grinch-y—then take a short drive to the charismatic East Texas town of Marshall and attend the Wonderland of Lights Festival. It’s the largest Christmas festival in the region. You won’t regret it one bit.
Located in northeast Texas, roughly 150 miles east of Dallas, the town of Marshall, est. 1841 (population: 24,501), was a political and production hub of the Confederacy during the Civil War; but since 1987, this town wrote the book on Christmas spirit, attracting thousands of visitors every year from Texas and all over the world, leaving them spell-bound with magical lights (and sugar plums) dancing in their heads.
Starting off at the historic Washington Square District of downtown, the sparkling Wonderland of Lights Festival will make you feel jolly. How can approximately ten million lights and hundreds of displays not have that effect on you? ‘Tis the season, after all, so do yourself (and your family) a favor by tearing open the shutter, throwing up the sash, and making your season brighter! Special note: it takes over eight-thousand man-hours to accomplish this holiday task!
At the center of the holiday events is the Historic Harrison County Courthouse, which was built in 1902 and is located at the end of The Street of Dreams, which runs along North Washington Avenue. The courthouse is decorated with over 250,000 LED lights, where visitors can watch the nightly Christmas light show, which is synchronized with holiday music. There are no two shows alike, and it has easily become the festival favorite! There are also lighted exhibits throughout the town, where the picturesque downtown businesses also participate in the joy. Opportunities are available to take in the sights by horse-drawn carriage or onboard a nostalgic English-style double-decker bus. If that’s not on your holiday season to-do list, you are more than welcome to drive your own car, but I’ll warn you the traffic can get quite congested.
Located near the Capital One Bank building is the Samsung Ice Skating rink, the only open-air rink in East Texas, and an exciting attraction for adults and children. Ice skating is available nightly, subject to weather conditions, so please check ahead and be prepared. Ice skating hours are Monday through Thursday from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm and 7:30 pm to 8:30pm; and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm, 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm, 7:30 pm to 8:30 pm, and 9:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Please note ice skating is typically not available on Christmas Eve.
For children 10 and under, the North Pole Play Land is available and is part of the Wonderland Village’s attractions, which also includes the North Pole Play Land Express train ride that coasts up and down The Street of Dreams. The kiddos will surely be giddy with excitement, and soon they will be talking of St. Nicholas’ pending arrival, whispering amongst the gang of every single thing they put on their Christmas lists. Don’t forget to take them to Santa’s Workshop for a visit. Hours of operation are held on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday starting at 6:00 pm until 8:00 pm from November 23rd until December 23rd.
Families can partake of the annual lighted Christmas parade, taking place this year on Saturday, December 6th starting at 6:00 pm, where hundreds of holiday characters dance throughout the streets and atop beautifully lighted floats, but make sure you line up a little early to get a good view. By the way, some of the floats measure more than 24-feet tall. It’s truly an awe-inspiring sight to behold, so have your camera ready.
The Washington Square Variety Show begins directly in front of the courthouse. The 50-minute show features entertaining local talent and artists during the festival. Admission is free. You can also strike a chord and join the chorus with local carolers singing all of your Christmas favorites. It’s located at the Telegraph Park Stage, starting at 7:00 pm every night. After the show, take a stroll along the Street of Dreams and visit Marshall’s many boutiques so you can finish up your shopping and check things off your Christmas gift list.
This year, the Wonderland of Lights Festival is open evenings from November 26th through December 31st, with many special events scheduled throughout. For more information and to purchase tickets, you can contact the Marshall Convention & Visitors Bureau by email at cvb@VisitMarshallTexas.org or by phone at (903) 702-7777. For more local information, you can also contact Marshall’s Chamber of Commerce at (903) 935-7868.
Notable places for great eats:
After you’ve ogled at the holiday lights, whispered in Santa’s ear, and sprained a few muscles ice skating, do yourself another favor and tuck into Central Perks at The Weisman antique shop, located at 211-A N. Washington, for a piping-hot mug of the best hot chocolate this side of the Mississippi. If you’re hungry, this isn’t a bad place to grab a bite to eat either. They offer soups, salads, burgers, and so much more. The Black Raspberry Chipotle Pork sandwich is awesome (and my personal favorite), but don’t take my word for it. Instead, just dive right in and try it for yourself, but have a napkin or two handy.
If you like barbeque, head on over to BBQ Express, located at 801 Elmore Street. It’s such a friendly place that’s considered the hidden gem in Marshall and looks like a hole-in-the-wall, but it’s very good food. The customer service is just as impeccable, and the food is finger-licking good. I’m not a huge fan of barbeque, but you won’t catch me bypassing this wonderful establishment.
If barbeque doesn’t really make your mouth water, go to The Blue Frog Grill located at 101 W. Austin Street, where they offer up top-notch, high-quality food. You really can’t beat the fresh ingredients and excellent cooking. There’s something for everyone.
Marshall Depot and Museum: Explore the Texas and Pacific Railroad history with railroad memorabilia and city artifacts. A model train moves around over a half-dozen Marshall landmarks built to scale. Open from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, Tuesday through Saturday and is located at 800 North Washington Street. (903) 938-9495.
Marshall Pottery and Museum: Exhibits include antique pottery wheels and photographs, along with a presentation of its history. Open 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, Monday through Saturday. It’s located at 4901 Elysian Fields Road. (903) 938-9201.
Michelson Art Museum: Features the work of the late Russian-American post-impressionist Leo Michelson. Other artists are also featured. It’s open from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, Tuesday through Friday, and 1:00 to 4:00 PM on Saturday. Closed on Sundays and holidays. It’s located at 216 N. Bolivar Street. (903) 935-9480. www.michelsonmuseum.org.
Starr Family Home State Historic Site: This Texas Historic Commission property tells the story of the Starr family and their important role in the Texas settlement after the Civil War. The mansion is furnished with the family furniture, portraits, and clothing from 1870 – 1900. Open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, Tuesday through Saturday, and from Noon to 4:00 pm on Sundays. It’s located at 407 W. Travis Street. (903) 935-3044. www.visitstarrfamilyhome.com.
Ginocchio National Historic District: It encompasses three square blocks in the heart of old downtown, which surrounds the 1896 Ginocchio Hotel. The hotel is located at 800 North Washington Street. (903) 702-7777. Another feature is the white-frame Allen house, a typical example of early Texas architecture, circa 1877. The Allen house is located at 610 North Washington Street.
Don’t miss nearby Caddo Lake in Karnack, Texas. It’s the state’s only natural lake, where thick bald cypress trees, the largest in the world, encompass the area. The park includes fully restored pine log cabins, available for rental. It’s located off Texas 43, 15 miles northeast of Marshall. (903) 679-3351. www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/caddo-lake.