Folk Festivals

By: Beverly J. Stoeltje

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: September 11, 2020

Festivals in Texas, always featuring music or at least garnished by it, reflect a tradition of community cooperation and celebration that began at least as early as the arrival of permanent settlers. Early European Texans of all faiths, occupations, and ethnic backgrounds brought their traditions with them. Texas festivals reflect this diversity of cultural identity and also demonstrate the wide range of occupations, agricultural products, and historical events that characterize the state. The origins of some celebrations reach far back into history in other lands; others originated in twentieth-century Texas.

In frontier Texas full-scale festivals were sometimes impossible, but groups still gathered frequently to celebrate special occasions with music, dance, and food. Older traditional festivals are rarely called that. Instead, they derive their names from what they celebrate-a saint such as St. Anthony, for instance, or an object that is celebrated, as in the Luling Watermelon Thump. Those festivals that were brought to Texas usually incorporate features from life in the state, especially a heightened awareness of ethnicity.

Traditional festivals based solely on experience in Texas are associated with particular towns, regions, or historical events. The major symbol of these celebrations is often a natural product, such as watermelons, cattle, or trees. All festivals foster the concept of identity based on shared experience. A second group of festivals of more recent origin do use the term festival in their names. These have not developed out of a community or ethnic group and are typically sponsored by an institution or an individual. Such festivals are designed to attract masses of people for performance and the display of traditions. The range and variety of festivals in Texas make a listing impossible. The editors of Texas Highways keep a file of community events for the year and publish a monthly list of events in the magazine. At any festival an event may be added or removed at any time, and dates can be altered from year to year.

For early settlers traditional festivals celebrated in the country of origin often took on even greater significance in Texas. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Mexican Americans celebrated the full round of religious fiestas throughout the year, with special emphasis on the December holidays. In San Antonio the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12) was observed as early as the 1840s with an elaborate procession. Twelve girls dressed in white carried the image of the Virgin Mary, and fiddlers accompanied the procession to San Fernando de Bexar Cathedral on the Main Plaza. After Mass, people attended all-night dances in their homes. During the Christmas season the Texas-Mexican population, especially in San Antonio, performed the Spanish medieval drama Los Pastores and enacted posadas, rituals commemorating Joseph and Mary's search for shelter in Bethlehem (see FOLK DRAMA). Hispanic and other Catholics all over the state have continued to celebrate the various saints days in the twentieth century. Additionally, El Cinco de Mayo, a secular holiday and one of the Fiestas Patrias, is celebrated with parades, floats, folk dancing, and an all-night ball in some parts of Texas (see FIESTAS PATRIAS).

Germans brought unique celebrations to their new homes in Central Texas. Immigrants came in large numbers between 1845 and 1850 and organized singing societies in most of the German Texas communities. Singers and families assembled on Saturday morning for a Saengerfest (singers' festival), at which they sang and ate sausage, sauerkraut, and potato salad and drank beer. The festivals began with parades, included dancing, and concluded with grand finales of song. An older tradition among the Germans are the Schützenfeste, or marksmen's festivals. These originated as archery contests in Europe several hundred years ago. They developed into shooting fairs and then folk festivals. In Texas a festival of shooting clubs includes an opening parade, competitive shooting, music, dancing, and feasting. The largest current German festival is the Wurstfest of New Braunfels, held in November and featuring German food and music.

To Czechs the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on August 15 has historical, religious, and ethnic value. Czechs from Moravia and Bohemia immigrated to Texas in the 1850s and established the town of Praha, where in 1890 they built a church that became the mother parish for surrounding communities. When Czechs from Central Texas gather in Praha on August 15, Mass is celebrated in the historic church, which is Czech in architectural style, Czech food is served, and Texas Czech bands play music for dancing throughout the evening. Another popular Czech festival is Westfest, held each Labor Day weekend in West.

The North Texas Irish Festival is held each year in Dallas. The event, produced by the Southwest Celtic Music Association, is the second oldest Irish festival in the United States.

For Italians near Bryan, St. Joseph's Day (March 19) is an annual event to honor the saint and bring Italians together. The Italian feast is primarily a domestic celebration with roots in Sicily, but in Texas it is associated with a miraculous cure in a particular family, which occurred in 1938 and is attributed to San Giuseppe.

A date of great importance to African Americans in Texas is June 19, popularly known as Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day in 1865 when Gen. Gordon Granger officially announced in Texas that slavery was ended. This day has been celebrated ever since in Texas, western Louisiana, southern Oklahoma, and southwestern Arkansas by Black communities with parades, picnics, music, and sports events, especially baseball. Since 1979 Juneteenth has been an official Texas holiday. Among Blacks the occasion is important for reunions and homecomings.

On June 13 the Tigua Indians of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, located in the mission lands of El Paso, honor their patron saint, San Antonio, in the Fiesta de San Antonio. The Tiguas built their city in the 1680s, when they moved south from their original home on the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. On June 11 and 12, the two days preceding the fiesta, the reservation becomes the scene for intertribal Indian dances, and the pueblo holds an Indian market. The day of the fiesta is celebrated with processions, feasting, traditional dances, and a Mass, all in honor of San Antonio, whom the Tiguas associate with gods of their pre-Christian religion.

Among the most popular festivals based on the Texas experience are cowboy festivals-events of several days' duration that feature rodeos, barbecue, and fiddle music. In Stamford, the Fourth of July is celebrated with three days of rodeo and reunion, known as the Texas Cowboy Reunion. Many individuals hold family or class reunions at the same time as the Cowboy Reunion.

Festivals often honor the fruits of the land and the experience of living on the land. The Luling Watermelon Thump, a popular festival of this type, lasts several days in July and includes a watermelon auction and coronation of a queen. Likewise, the Poteet Strawberry Festival celebrates its title as the "Strawberry Capital of Texas" with food exhibits, a carnival, a parade, country and Tejano music, and other events each April. In deep East Texas the town of Winnsboro holds an October festival called Autumn Trails that includes trail rides, gospel singing, and evening dances.

Audiences who attend large so-called folk festivals are frequently unfamiliar with the traditions displayed or have consciously learned the music or acquainted themselves with the food of another culture. Among the most popular of the contemporary festivals is the Kerrville Folk Festival, where visitors can hear country, folk, bluegrass, and gospel music. Amateur banjo players, guitar pickers, and fiddlers are judged in competition at the Bluegrass Festival, and the winners are offered the opportunity to perform the following year. Every year the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio hosts the Texas Folklife Festival, which celebrates the many ethnic groups of Texas. Visitors can try ethnic foods such as Cajun boudin, Wendish noodles, Lebanese shish kebab, or Polish pierogi. Costumed musicians and dancers perform tunes and steps from Lebanon, Germany, and other nations. Other traditions demonstrated at the festival reflect pioneer life, and under a large shade tree yarn spinners captivate audiences. In the fall the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso hosts the Border Folk Festival. Sponsored by the National Park Service, the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and the El Paso Friends of Folk Music, the festival specializes in music and dance of folk traditions around the world and presents performances on three stages.

Richard Bauman and Roger D. Abrahams, eds., "And Other Neighborly Names": Social Process and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). J. Frank Dobie, ed., Coffee in the Gourd, Publications of the Texas Folklore Society 2 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1923). Richard Dorson, ed., Handbook of American Folklore (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982). Victor Turner, ed., Celebration (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1982).


  • Music
  • Events and Festivals
  • Genres (Folk)
  • Peoples
  • Germans
  • Italians

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Beverly J. Stoeltje, “Folk Festivals,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed November 29, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
September 11, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: