Day Trips

Discover Old World Christmas treasures at the Sophienburg Museum in New Braunfels.

A pickle among the sugar plum fairies.
A pickle among the sugar plum fairies. (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

The Sophienburg Museum in New Braunfels tells the story of the German settlement on the Texas frontier and maintains some of the Old World legends that the settlers brought with them. Among the most sacred traditions were the stories and customs surrounding the Christmas tree.

Sophia's Shop, the museum's gift shop, sells an assortment of Christmas ornaments from Germany. "The Germans had a lot of Christmas traditions," says Annalee Hicks, vice-president of the museum board.

Traditionally, the German Christmas tree was not decorated until Christmas Eve. Before glass ornaments, the trees were dressed with natural items like bird's nests and wooden toys. Many of the legends continued in the families after the commercial ornaments became available.

Every region of Europe seems to have developed its own legends. Oranges were a winter delicacy that made a special gift. The tradition was carried on by giving special friends a glass orange slice ornament. Farmers would hang a ladybug on the tree and pray the beetle would visit their fields and eat the other bugs.

Hicks says that a spider ornament was put on the tree with the hopes that it would spin a web of gold while the owner slept. Because the frog can only go forward, it was added to the tree to keep the house looking toward the future. Mushrooms were added as a good luck piece for the new year.

One of the most popular legends is the story of the pickle ornament. After the tree was decorated and the children sent to bed, mother or father would hide a pickle deep in the fir boughs among the other ornaments. On Christmas morning when the children gathered around the tree they would search for the pickle ornament. The child who found it first would receive an extra gift left by St. Nicholas.

"Some of the local German descendants have never heard of the legend," Hicks says, "and others remember their grandmothers doing it." The Old World families used real pickles rather than a shiny, dark green glass ornament like the ones sold in the gift shop. The museum group began selling the legendary ornament at last year's Wurstfest, where they sold out three times. This year they have sold more than a thousand of the decorations before Thanksgiving. Proceeds from the sales go to support the museum which was built on the original site of the town's first administration building.

Prince Carl of Solm-Braunfels arrived at the Comal River in Central Texas on March 21, 1845, to establish a German colony. The site for his fort, on a hill overlooking the village, was named "Sophienburg" after his fiancee, Lady Sophia.

Although his stay in Texas was short, Prince Carl's administration of the colony nearly drove it into bankruptcy. Still, nearly 6,000 German immigrants followed him to the New World and established several towns including Fredericksburg, Boerne, and Comfort.

The nicely presented exhibits in the museum document the lives of the early settlers. Displays show how they lived, the tools they used, and even how they built their simple rock homes. One of Hicks' favorite items is a carriage that was built in New Braunfels for a successful merchant. The elaborate buggy includes lanterns, a tube to talk to the driver from the coach, and a vase and even drink holders for the passengers.

A recent addition to the museum, the gift shop, carries a variety of local and imported German goods. Its books cover a wide range of Central Texas topics, and the shop has a selection of collectable nutcrackers and other ornaments. Throughout the year seasonal items are added to the inventory, but "you can always find a little bit of Christmas at Sophia's Shop," Hicks says.

The museum is a few blocks southeast of the Main Plaza. From San Antonio Street take Academy to 401 W. Coll St. Hours are Mon.-Sat. 10am-5pm and Sun. 1-5pm. For information, call 830/629-1577 or http://www.nbtx.com/sophienburg.

During the holiday season, visit the Holiday River of Lights in New Braunfels' Cypress Bend Park. Every evening, 6-10pm, the park is lit up with about 50 displays through Jan. 1.

On Dec. 4, 5-8pm, the Sophienburg Museum, Conservation Society Grounds, and the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture open their doors for a candlelight tour. At each location guests are served traditional German foods. "They have some of the neatest cookies you ever saw," Hicks says.

The downtown business district is closed off to vehicles on Dec. 7 for Wassail Fest. The stores compete for bragging rights for preparing the best holiday drink. The sidewalks are lined with entertainers as shoppers stroll through the stores and enjoy the holiday cheer. For more information on these events, contact the New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce at 800/572-2626 or http://www.nbchamb.org.

Coming up this weekend ...

Thanksgiving Arts & Crafts Fair at the Bastrop Opera House features the work of a variety of artists, Nov. 26-27. 512/303-6283.

Courthouse and Square Lighting begins in Blanco on Nov. 26 with open house in the local businesses and Santa in the old courtroom. 830/833-2201.

Sleeping Dog Holiday Sale at Billy Ray and Beverly Mangham's studio outside of San Marcos is a fun shopping experience, 10am-6pm Nov. 27 and 12-6 Nov. 28. Call for directions, 512/754-8171.

Coming up ...

The Eagles Have Landed at their winter home on Lake Buchanan. The first American Bald Eagle of the season was spotted on Nov. 3, right on time for their November to March vacation from Alaska and Canada. Vanishing Texas River Cruise offers eagle-spotting tours from their new dock in Canyon of the Eagles Park northwest of Burnet at the end of FM2341. 800/4-RIVER-4.

Dickens on the Strand in Galveston has been rated one of the best events in the country by national travel writers. Enjoy a Victorian-era holiday festival on the waterfront, Dec. 4-5. 800/351-4237 or http://www.galveston.com.

"Winter's Reflection" are the limited-edition Christmas tree ornaments, designed by nationally renowned glass sculptor Bill Meek of Wimberley, available at the Wimberley Visitors Center on RR12. 512/847-2201.

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