As Austin prepares to celebrate a very different holiday season this year in the shadow of the ongoing pandemic, the much-loved Trail of Lights at Zilker Park is providing its own version of social distance by transitioning to a drive-through event, meaning we’ll be idling, not walking, past its giant lighted displays and other seasonal decorations.
Due to COVID-19 prevention policies, no open-air vehicles may enter the Trail of Lights. This includes bicycles, motorcycles, pedicabs, trailers, golf carts, horse and carriage, sleighs, reindeer, scooters, etc.
— Austin Trail of Lights 2020
Though an imperfect solution — we should point out not everyone owns a car — it’s likely the safest way to run this sort of event without shutting it down completely for a year. It’s also an unexpectedly retro approach, one that a lot of Austinites who got here sometime after the end of the 1990s have never experienced.
If you weren’t aware, the event now known as the Trail of Lights started out as Yule Fest in 1965, with the Zilker Holiday Tree, arguably the star of the show, not arriving until 1967 — and between the early 1970s and late 1990s this holiday tradition was largely a drive-through experience, taking different routes through Zilker.
That’s not to say there weren’t on-foot amenities as well — a reconstruction of the North Pole, complete with post office for sending letters to Santa Claus (“overnight delivery guaranteed!”), was a major attraction for many years — but ask Austinites of a certain age and you’ll most often hear tales of riding through the dazzling lights in the back seat of a Lincoln or even bouncing around in the bed of a pickup.
Humorously foreshadowing Austin’s ongoing struggles with growth and mobility, traffic through Yule Fest became increasingly congested — “Yes, the traffic is terrible,” explained the Austin American-Statesman in 1983, “but the sights and sounds of Yule Fest are well worth the crowds.” If only we could go back in time and show those folks a picture of I-35 in 2020 — we’d have started Project Connect 30 years ago. Whoops.
In the interest of inclusivity (and in support of gigantic menorahs) Yule Fest was renamed the Trail of Lights in 1992, but the drive-through portion of the event hung on until a final banishment in 1998. Even so, experiencing the lights from behind a dashboard had slowly declined in prominence before this — by the mid-1990s, the event ran for 17 nights, with 12 of those reserved only for pedestrians.
In the Austin of just last year, you’d be laughed out of town for proposing we bring back driving through the Trail of Lights, but strange times demand strange measures — or old ones, in this case. Even if you weren’t around for the original version, we recommend trying out this unintentional reenactment of the historic Trail this year — because if everything goes according to plan, you won’t be driving through in 2021.