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Winter holiday season is festive, profound in northern New Mexico communities

Christmas Eve farolitos have been a Santa Fe tradition since the 19th century. (Journal)
Christmas Eve farolitos have been a Santa Fe tradition since the 19th century. (Journal)
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We who live in northern New Mexico are so lucky. It is a land of many and diverse cultures with multiple rituals that enrich our lives. From “Chanukah on Ice” to “The Nutcracker” ballet, from arts and crafts bazaars to free farolito viewings, winter is the season for special events.

Mid-winter, which used to be called “the quiet time” by American Indians, is quiet no more. There are so many special occasions at this time of year, we’ve grouped them chronologically in categories.

The spiritual side

Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah) is the first of the religion-oriented festivals in the wintertime calendar, usually early to mid-December. The Chabad Jewish Center of Santa Fe, the Hasidic Orthodox Jewish congregation makes the most of Hanukkah in the community. The Chabad Center opened 16 years ago, led by Rabbi Beryl Levertov and his wife, Devorah Leah, who had emigrated from Brooklyn at the request of Jewish Santa Feans. Two years later, in an act of self-assertion Santa Fe had not seen before, the Chabad Center erected a “community menorah” to mark the Jewish holiday.

Every year the community menorah is lit on the Santa Fe Plaza in a festive celebration. Latkes are served and cider is consumed. It’s a big celebration. By now, the mayor generally shows up and all elected officials — including congressmen — are invited.

“It’s amazing,” Levertov says. “We really have become a part of the community here, and feel very welcomed. Everyone can appreciate the message of Hanukkah — lights in the darkness and religious freedom.”

Early in December, the Palace of the Governors puts on a community-invited Las Posadas on the plaza. Las Posadas is a traditional Hispanic Catholic re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for a place of lodging in Bethlehem. The pair, accompanied by a choir of singers, travel from spot to spot on the Plaza, being denied entrance while the crowd boos and hisses the devils taunting the Holy Family from the roofs of the downtown buildings. Finally, they gain entrance at the Lincoln Avenue side of the Palace of the Governors and everyone enjoys refreshments and traditional carols.

Also in December, the First Baptist Church’s Living Nativity will be up evenings for visitors to drive or walk by in the parking lot on the west side of the church. There are always refreshments and friendship activities in the gym next door after you’ve visited the scene.

Seventy miles north at Taos Pueblo, there’s a highly traditional — but not quiet — celebration of Mary and the Virgin birth at dusk. Mary’s effigy is paraded from the pueblo’s mission church around the pueblo plaza, with singers and dancers and torches flaming and bonfires burning and guns firing blanks. It’s all dramatic and exciting and a little bit scary. A vespers service follows in the church.

Christmas Eve services are important in Santa Fe. The midnight Mass at Holy Faith Episcopal Church on East Palace Avenue has been lauded by old timers as a “traditional” high-church choral Eucharist — incense, candles, greenery, beautiful music on a three-rank Moeller organ.

On the other hand, the mix of Christmas Eve Masses at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis has been called, more impertinently, “the best show in town.” English and Spanish, mariachi musicians, the cathedral’s renowned choir, a nearly full-size crèche and the archbishop comes up from Albuquerque — it doesn’t get much more celebratory that that. And spiritually, it’s a High Holy Night for Christians.

Community gatherings

We’ve noted the Community Menorah and Las Posadas. There are other events at which northern New Mexicans and their visitors are welcomed. The annual motorcycle riders’ toy drive is in late November on the Española Plaza (that’s on the west side of the river), with bikers bringing donations and riding through the fall countryside.

After Thanksgiving, the Santa Fe holiday mercantile season is kicked off with the lighting of Christmas trees and other decorations on the Plaza at dusk.

In early December, the state History Museum celebrates Christmas at the Palace, an occasion for Santa to visit (the old man also dropped by at the Christmas tree lighting) and for traditional bizcochitos (New Mexico’s state cookie) and other goodies inside the Palace. The annual celebration of Hispanic, Native American and Anglo Christmas traditions with carols, storytelling, Santa and his elves, music, cider and cookies starts at about 5:30 p.m.

The Gustave Baumann marionettes will take the stage at the New Mexico Museum of Art’s Annual Holiday Celebration in December. It’s free, and youths can have their pictures taken with Santa sitting on their laps. Children will have an opportunity to make a decoration or a puppet, as well as enjoy cookies and punch.

Steve Cantrell, public relations manager for the Department of Cultural Affairs, says the marionette shows are “wildly popular.”

One puppet, Freckles, will hide in a museum gallery, “and the kids are invited to find Freckles,” he explains.

The puppets have been part of holiday traditions in Santa Fe for decades. The museum is on West Palace Avenue.

Lots of lights

There also are farolitos around all through the holiday season. Farolitos, which people in Albuquerque and points south call “luminarias,” are the little paper bag lanterns that became a Santa Fe tradition practically as soon as paper bags arrived with traders in the 19th century. In Santa Fe, luminarias are the small bonfires at the driveway entrances on Christmas Eve.

Farolitos have been a community tradition in Santa Fe since 1971, when a couple of neighborhood associations along Canyon Road and Acequia Madre — two famous Eastside Santa Fe streets — thought it would be cool on Christmas Eve to have everybody put out farolitos along their walls and rooftops and stand around the luminarias singing carols. Then they invited the rest of the town to come and see.

They’re a little ambivalent about it now. It’s developed into such a famous event that the crowds and traffic have to be controlled by city police, no driving is allowed even if you live there and people get pushy and peevish if the displays aren’t what they want them to be. Every year there’s grumpy talk about ending the tradition but so far the farolitos are out — and so are the crowds. It’s a tradition.

In Española they put out farolitos on that small city’s plaza, just as Santa Fe decorates the Santa Fe Plaza. Possibly the loveliest farolito display, however, is also the quietest. The little village of Velarde — a tiny, apple-growing unincorporated village north of Española about halfway between there and Taos — began without any fanfare to line the federal highway through the community with farolitos on Christmas Eve. The volunteers of Velarde aren’t trying to attract customers to any business, or to show off anything except their faith and friendliness. And to drive through Velarde on Christmas Eve, on your way back from the torchlight procession at Taos Pueblo, say, is to experience the sweetness of Christmas in an unexpectedly beguiling way.

Festive fun

The guys who developed LED lights and small portable battery packs didn’t know what a boon they were creating for holiday parades. New Mexicans love sparkle and color and fun and nothing says sparkle-color-fun like Electric Light Parades. So we have lots. Why be stingy?

Probably the most endearing is the annual parade in Las Vegas, N.M., that historic old railroad town to the east. People line the roofs and balconies and sidewalks of downtown businesses and the parade comes up Grand Avenue and around the plaza. It’s all great fun and as Norman Rockwellsmall-town (with a distinctly Hispanic tone) as you can get.

Española also has an annual electric light parade, preceded with fun for the kiddies at Española’s “Christmas on the Plaza.” Santa will be there, as well as music and traditional foods.

“Chanukah on Ice” is a lowkey community celebration that mostly celebrates the fact that Santa Fe has an actual ice rink. Oh, and Hanukkah, too, of course.

Sponsored by the Chabad Center, “Chanukah on Ice” is at the city’s Genoveva Chavez Community Center on Rodeo Road. Bring the kiddies and slide around; the only charge is the entrance fee to the center and the rental fee for skates. Latkes and other traditional goodies will be available. There are ice skating demonstrations and a little unobtrusive help from Santa Fe’s “ice-skating rabbi,” Martin Levy of Congregation Beit Tikva. It’s a lot of fun to celebrate freedom of religious expression. And the fact that Santa Fe actually has an ice rink.

Gift opportunities

In a region full of magical artisans and craftspeople, it’s not surprising there is a bevy of wintertime bazaars and art shows, including winter versions of the hugely popular Spanish Market and Indian Market.

Kicking them off is one of our town’s best-kept secrets: the annual holiday bazaar at Santa Fe Indian School. Sponsored by the parents’ association, the bazaar draws artists from throughout New Mexico’s Indian country, and they show gift bargains from high-end sculptures to tiny beaded items made by the senior citizens’ groups on the pueblos. Plus, there’s always fry bread.

It’s no secret. Everybody in town knows to shop at the St. Nicholas Bazaar at the Church of the Holy Faith, the cut-stone Episcopal church at 311 E. Palace Ave. whose Women’s Guild members labor all year to produce the plethora of stuffed toys, placemats, holiday decorations and pot holders (they’re famous for their perfectgift pot holders).

There are other worthy church bazaars in town but the St. Nicholas is the grandmama. The proceeds benefit outreach programs at the church and the bazaar started more than 130 years ago!

Another secret source of goodies are the woven items — scarves, shawls, ponchos, rugs — offered at the annual holiday show of the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center teachers and students. These things are beautiful. Not cheap — the weavers know the value of their work — but not profoundly expensive, either. Which is the point at all of these shows — as with our traditions, so with our gifts: locally made is better.

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