From holiday strolls to the Trail of Lights, Austin hosts some beloved traditions that urge everyone to get out of the house and spread the spirit of the season.
But behind the scenes, there are those who make all this holiday cheer happen, whether they’re front and center or not. Here’s a snapshot of three people who bring these traditions to life.
Capitol Menorah Lighting
For the third year in a row, Rabbi Mendy Levertov of Chabad of Austin and Gov. Greg Abbott met to light the menorah in celebration of Hanukkah.
At the lighting on the south lawn of the Capitol on Dec. 2, Levertov invited Gov. Abbott to say a few words and light the shamash, the center candle, of the electric and Tiki torch menorah. Captain Mendy Stern then lit the first candle for the first night of Hanukkah.
After the candles and electric menorah were properly lighted and the blessings were sung, Levertov led everyone in a final chorus of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel…” before inviting them to enjoy the latkes and sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts, to his left. Also, there were menorahs to take home for anyone who wanted one.
“Have a very, very wonderful and happy Hanukkah,” Levertov said. “Remember, this is your menorah, your mitzvah; it is more important that you light it at home than go to 10, 20 or 30 public lightings.”
And later at home with his own family, Levertov lit the menorah, sang songs and ate jelly doughnuts with his four children, just as he did at the Capitol.
Public Chabad menorah lightings began in earnest in 1973 when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson encouraged the Jewish community to take the menorah out of synagogues and homes and light it directly within the community. Now there are thousands of public menorah lightings taking place yearly worldwide, Levertov said.
“We all do this as a direct outcome of his inspiration,” Levertov said.
Levertov and his father, Rabbi Yosef Levertov, who has been involved in Austin menorah lightings since the 1980s, first initiated the idea of having public menorah lightings at City Hall and the Capitol in 2005. This is the fourth one they have done with the Texas governor present — Gov. Rick Perry participated in 2014, and Gov. Greg Abbott has attended the public lightings in front of the Capitol since 2016.
Chabad is a branch of Hasidism, but the Capitol menorah lighting has gathered people of different faiths and beliefs alongside the Jewish community in Austin, Levertov said.
“The menorah itself is a universal symbol of light among the darkness, a symbol of religious freedom, the ability to choose your path, follow your religious belief," he said, "and that’s why I think it resonates so strongly with people of all faiths.”
Gov. Abbott reminded the crowd of this before lighting the shamash.
“The lessons … of Hanukkah are everlasting and ubiquitous, applicable to everyone; faith in God … perseverance … and miracles,” Abbott said.
Zach Theatre’s holiday shows
On the afternoon of Dec. 5, dozens of kindergartners were emerging from Zach Theatre’s Topfer Theatre after a singalong performance of “Holiday Heroes.” Most were sporting tie-dye T-shirts, running excitedly around the lobby as teachers tried to round them up before taking them to the waiting yellow school buses. Some were still belting out a few lines of “Jingle Bells” as they walked out the door.
This is just one of the audiences that ushers Henry and Nancy Kojzarek will meet this holiday season. For at least 20 years, the Kojzareks have ushered shows across Austin.
“Our job is to make them comfortable, make them feel welcome, appreciate their coming,” Nancy Kojzarek said. Today, that meant corralling excited students and getting them seated and ready for the show.
It all started after they saw “The Phantom of the Opera.” Nancy Kojzarek really wanted to see it again and asked if the theater needed any help. They didn’t, but they told the Kojzareks to apply to be ushers.
“We finally found out you cannot buy all the tickets you want,” Nancy Kojzarek said. “There’s just too many awesome things.”
Now, they don’t have to buy tickets. One of the benefits of the job is getting to see a show multiple times from the sidelines.
“Very rarely have I seen a show that I haven’t been thrilled to death to see two, three, four times,” Nancy Kojzarek said. “Nobody else has the privilege of seeing a thing enough times that you see all kinds of things each time.”
“It’s just amazing who shows up for the different shows and how they treat the shows,” Henry Kojzarek said. “I think there really hasn’t been anybody ever who is sorry that they came.”
The Kojzareks have even been known to usher on Christmas Day, when the rest of their family visits elsewhere. All throughout the holiday season, they enjoy getting to see audiences file in, all dressed up to see a show.
“During the holidays is kind of special. It’s just a happy time,” Nancy Kojzarek said. “It really has nothing to do with us — we’re just here.”
Besides, the theaters need people like the Kojzareks. They’re more than happy to do it.
“If nothing else, I would consider it our community service,” she said. “None of these theaters (could do it) without the volunteers that come in and do this.”
“And it’s just fun,” Henry Kojzarek said.
Under the Zilker Holiday Tree
On Dec. 12, the 17th day of the Zilker Holiday Tree and the third of the public opening of the Trail of Lights, families emerged from the nearby parking lot and headed to the tree.
Underneath, kids encircled the tree’s center support pole and looked up toward the lights, spinning in dizzying circles until they toppled over. No one could seem to resist the urge to twirl themselves sick under the 155-foot tree’s strands of multicolored bulbs, including a group of nearby adults.
Not far away, a line started to form under a big sign simply reading “kettle corn” and “hot cocoa,” where Wayne Webb and Courage Cleveland handed over bags and steaming cups while two guys in the back were busy filling the drum of a giant popcorn popper with kernels. Crushed and whole pieces of popcorn carpeted the ground below the popper and the pyramids of filled bags. At 7 p.m., business was steady.
Webb, co-owner of As Good As It Gets Concessions, has been serving up bags of his sweetened popcorn under the Zilker Holiday Tree for 17 years. They’ll go through 75 50-pound bags of kernels for their stint.
“It’s been fun, been busy,” Cleveland said while taking a short break in between customers.
Webb and his brother Jeff got the gig under the tree after trying for two years. The person in charge at the time said that since they already had popcorn on the Trail of Lights, there wasn’t much point in kettle corn under the tree. In response, the Webbs simply brought him a bag of their kettle corn. That was all it took.
Webb’s kettle corn also can be found at Eeyore’s Birthday Party, the Austin Powwow and the Zilker Kite Festival. Each summer, Webb travels across the country, selling kettle corn at powwows on Native American reservations in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin. He’ll even go up to his own reservation, the Omaha Reservation in Macy, Neb.
One of the best parts of working so close to the action is getting to see the reactions the Zilker Holiday Tree draws.
“Just seeing all the little kids’ faces when they see the tree for the first time (is great),” Webb said. “Not even just the kids, but adults too.”
But the tree and the Trail of Lights are not the only draws for people coming out to Zilker Park during the holidays.
“It’s always been a tradition, so we see the same people every year,” Webb said. “Some people tell us they come back just for the kettle corn.”