If you’re looking for a New Mexico-flavored children’s book for the holidays, look no further than “New Mexico Christmas Story: Owl in a Straw Hat 3.”
The author is the beloved New Mexico writer Rudolfo Anaya, who died last year. The Museum of New Mexico Press just released the book.
As with the first two volumes in the “Owl in a Straw Hat” series, this one also features the bold, bright illustrations of Albuquerque artist El Moisés (Moisés Saucedo). His illustrations leap from the page.
There’s a bonus. The book is bilingual, in English and Spanish.
Ollie’s classmates and best friends at the Wisdom School in Chimayó are Bessie Beaver, Sally Skunk, Robbie Rabbit, Ninja Raccoon plus several fantastical creatures – Uno the Unicorn and Jackie Jackalope.
Nana, Ollie’s grandma, is the teacher at the school. She guides her students through many Christmastime activities that conclude at the Santuario de Chimayó.
Though not a classmate, New Mexico’s iconic Smokey Bear shows up.
Smokey shares his message of fire safety and explains the New Mexico holiday tradition of farolitos, rows of small paper bags inside of which are lit candles set in sand. The candles’ glow are to light the way to the nacimiento, the birth of the Santo Niño, the Christ Child.
Farolitos should not be confused with luminarias, small bonfires that have their own role in the New Mexico version of the Christmas story.
The book also weaves in the traditional Mexican folk drama of “Los pastores,” the shepherds’ play. Bearing gifts, the shepherds follow the light of the brightest star to the nacimiento.
Nana has her students put on their shepherds’ costumes to act one scene of the play. In the scene, the Devil (Ninja) tries to fool the shepherds, but Saint Michael (Ollie) defeats the Devil and redirects the shepherds on the path to the manger.
The book begins on a snowy Christmas Eve morning outside the Wisdom School. The classmates have just built a snowman. Even the snowman has a New Mexico touch. His nose is a red chile pod from a ristra and his teeth are kernels of dried corn. Ollie placed his wide-brimmed straw hat on the snowman’s head.
Not only is the snow beautiful, Nana says, but it’s needed for spring runoff to fill the community’s acequia (ditch), which distributes water for irrigation, including the school’s garden.
That smoothly transitions to a scene in the school’s kitchen. A fragrance is coming from a pot of posole Nana is stirring. Next to it is a skillet of chile colorado or red chile. Nana tells the students the chile will flavor the posole and the tamales that the Three Little Pigs will bring later.
In the next scene, the students search for a Christmas tree for the school. They find a skinny, forlorn piñon at the top of a hill. Bessie Beaver’s teeth are sharp enough to cut the trunk. They drag the tree down the hill and into the school, then trim it so it doesn’t look sad.
Anaya’s longtime friend Enrique Lamadrid wrote the Spanish translation that is printed side-by-side with Anaya’s English text.
“I got to consult with Rudy every step of the way,” Lamadrid said. “We did everything possible to make young readers comfortable with both languages through code-switching, which is not a chaotic process as some language purists would have you believe. It has a grammar and syntax all its own.”
Lamadrid is distinguished professor emeritus of Spanish at the University of New Mexico and is editor of UNM Press’ Querencia Series.
At the back of the book is Lamadrid’s translator’s note on Nuevomexicano language and culture. In the note, he points out, “Instead of the three kings (or Wise Men) from afar, we get the abuelos, the fierce and funny ancestral grandfathers who reaffirm the cultural lessons and prayers of children.”
Surprise – Santa Claus makes a cameo appearance. He’s one of the three masked abuelos going house to house on burros. Their role is to find out which children have been naughty or nice. The three grandfathers, Nana tells her students, will go to the nacimiento at the Santuario, bearing gifts for the Christ Child, just as the students themselves will.
Nana and her students later return to the school for biscochitos and hot chocolate.
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In the book are two pages under the heading “Anaya Family Recipes.” The recipes are for Nana’s Posole, Bessie Beaver’s Biscochitos and Three Little Pigs’ Calabacitas con Maiz Tamales.
And there’s a glossary of English translations of Spanish words that are in the English text. Among the glossary entries are posole (soup made from hominy and usually cooked with pork); biscochitos (sugar cookies usually served at Christmas time); and calabacitas (zucchini and corn sautéed in oil).