ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There’s something very special about the holidays in New Mexico.
The sights, the scents, the anticipation in the air.
Traditions both spiritual and secular mark Christmas celebrations for families that have called New Mexico home for generations, as well as those of us who can claim residency in years – or decades – only.
Our staff has compiled a list of some of the things that make the season so special.
1 Canyon Road farolitos
Dark streets are lighted by a soft glow.
Though, not steady – a delicate flicker.
Follow the meticulously placed paper bags filled with sand – or farolitos – along Canyon Road in Santa Fe on Christmas Eve and you can see why so many have made this a family tradition.
You can’t help but be transported to another time by taking in the stark beauty. One that our ancestors got to experience. Luckily, so do we as New Mexicans.
Thousands of people navigate around each other with smiles – yes, smiles – despite it getting crowded at times.
The crackling piñon wood bonfires emit a scent of what I can only correlate to being a child growing up in Santa Fe.
While the Farolito Walk on Canyon Road has grown over the years, you can feel the sense of camaraderie when visiting.
To be able to see the historic buildings – in which some of my ancestors once lived – lighted beautifully by the farolitos helps connect me with them. It’s a space I can share with them, though time has passed.
Santa Fe is the oldest capital in the United States and traditions like this are what make it special.
This is Christmas Eve in The City Different.
◊ Adrian Gomez
2 Cutting your own tree
Before moving to New Mexico, procuring a Christmas tree meant driving to a lot and picking out one of the cut evergreens.
Grabbing an axe or saw and heading into the woods wasn’t on the menu.
My daughter’s late grandfather, a New Mexico native, enjoyed gathering up whatever grandchildren were handy and taking them tree-hunting. It was a family tradition that he enjoyed sharing with the little ones.
The Santa Fe National Forest issues permits for Christmas tree cutting in areas near Albuquerque. Along with a tree tag you get a map and guidelines for harvesting the tree.
It’s a great way to get out in the woods, with all the makings of a fine family tradition.
◊ Helen Taylor
3 River of Lights
A holiday tradition for 20 years, the River of Lights is a great entertainment for the entire family.
Millions of twinkling lights turn the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden into a wonderland of dazzling animated flowers, whimsical designs and all manner of creatures – sea animals, dinosaurs, story characters and more. A synchronized music light show adds to the festivity.
Kids and adults will be ooh-ing and aahh-ing.
Make sure to bundle up against the chill and keep an eye on the little ones along the dark paths.
The River of Lights opens right after Thanksgiving and runs through the end of the year.
◊ Helen Taylor
4 Christmas on the Pecos
If you find yourself in the southern part of the state, you can enjoy another light show.
Carlsbad is hosting the 25th anniversary season of Christmas on the Pecos through Dec. 31. Participants board boats for a 40-minute glide down the Pecos River, gawking at the twinkling lights in backyards and boat docks. More than 100 homeowners and corporate sponsors spend hours creating the fairyland.
The boats depart from the Pecos River Village, a quaint, turn-of-the-century park at 711 Muscatel, Carlsbad.
Space is limited and advance ticket purchase at www.christmasonthepecos.com is strongly encouraged.
◊ Helen Taylor
5 Indian dances
The scent of piñon smoke mingles with the steady drumbeat of the Christmas Day dances at Kewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo).
Located on the east bank of the Rio Grande about 40 miles north of Albuquerque, the pueblo follows traditional spiritual practices mixed with Catholicism. Starting at midnight, pueblo members worship at the white circa 1890 mission church, twin painted horses standing guard over the doors.
After Mass, the people spill out into the pueblo’s plaza to dance through much of Christmas Day.
Visitors can watch the steady procession of dances beginning at about 9 a.m. Locals will direct you to the dirt courtyard at the church’s main entrance, candle flames still flickering across the altar.
Even if you know no one, residents will treat you like a guest.
If you’re lucky, a long table brimming with food will beckon you with the rich smells of chile, pinto beans, corn and round loaves of homemade bread. Feast attendees will urge you to “eat plenty,” often offering a loaf of bread to take home.
Curiosity soon lures visitors from food to the festivities, as you follow the heartbeat of the drums toward the pueblo plaza. The dancers often shake gourd rattles or greenery, as bells clatter around their ankles. The traditional dress is stunning: hand-woven geometrics merge with fur, feathers and ropes of turquoise.
Remember you are a guest. Don’t press a resident for deeper meanings behind the dances; they are sacred. Leave your camera and cellphone at home; the same with recording equipment and sketchbooks. Bring lawn chairs. Do not enter a home without an invitation. Pueblos are sovereign nations.
◊ Kathaleen Roberts
6 Old Town Christmas Tree
The giant Christmas tree that has been a feature in Old Town’s Plaza Don Luis for 24 years is actually composed of dozens of normal-sized trees. The trees sit on a two-piece 55-foot-tall frame that originally supported a similar tree arrangement Downtown.
When the frame was offered to the Old Town Merchants Association, Plaza Don Luis owners Henry and Karen Aceves took on the job, said their daughter Ashley Aceves.
In mid-November each year, they drive to a tree farm near Las Vegas, N.M., and load them up. The family and their friends, with assistance from the city’s Parks and Recreation and Cultural Services Department, erect the tree the weekend before Thanksgiving. They install the trees onto the frame so that it looks like one big tree.
This year there are 155 regular sized trees that make up the large tree.
There is a tree lighting ceremony each year on the first Friday in December. The tree stays up until the first weekend after New Year’s Day when family and friends join to take it down and the city recycles the individual trees. The decorations and lights are boxed and stored at the Aceves family ranch near Chilili.
◊ Rosalie Rayburn
The New Mexico Ballet Company’s classic “Nutcracker.” Keshet Dance Company’s “Nutcracker on the Rocks.” Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker.” Ballet Repertory Theater’s “Nutcracker.” Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” Festival Ballet Albuquerque’s “Nutcracker in the Land of Enchantment.” Aux Dog Theatre’s “The Real Nut: The True Story of the Nutcracker.”
That’s a full jar of mixed nuts and a surfeit of sugarplums, too.
From Thanksgiving weekend through Christmas, local and visiting troupes bring the classic tale of toy soldiers and dancing snowflakes to life on stages in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
◊ Helen Taylor
8 Madrid Christmas Light Display
The light display in the former mining town of Madrid on NM 14 south of Santa Fe dates back about 90 years.
Mine superintendent Oscar Joseph Huber started an employees club and mine workers were required to participate in community events such as the Fourth of July celebration and the Christmas light display. Beginning in the 1920s, miners set out 150,000 lights powered by the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Co.’s own coal-fed generators, according to the town website visitmadridnm.com.
The mines closed in the 1950s but Joe Huber, Oscar Huber’s son, who owned the town site, began renting some of the miner’s cabins to artists and craftspeople in the 1970s. The Christmas tradition was revived in the early 1980s.
Seasonal festivities start on the first Saturday in December with a parade with local children and animals, including a yak. During December, the town puts up Christmas lights across the main street and local shops put up their own individual light displays and stay open late on the weekends to give visitors a chance to shop for gifts, said Lisa Conley of Conley Studio Pottery in Madrid.
◊ Rosalie Rayburn
9 Christmas Eve
Many families in New Mexico celebrate the birth of Jesus, or Christmas, on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas day. It starts for many with an evening mass, some of which are designated as Midnight Mass. These services sometimes feature musical performances and can be up to two hours long. After-church activities might include a party, a dinner or the opening of gifts.
Christmas Eve was absolutely my favorite day of the entire year when I was young. We would travel down south to Artesia to be reunited with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I was raised Catholic and although my mom took us to church most Sundays there was nothing like church on Christmas Eve. First of all, the church was always packed and my entire family, dozens of us, would go dressed in our fancy new clothes. It was a big, happy reunion.
After church, everyone would head to my grandmother’s house to eat and open presents. Sometimes 50 of us would squeeze into her small three-bedroom home. Around midnight or shortly after, we would gather around the tree and start opening gifts. Someone would call out the name, then we would all watch as the gift was opened. The event could take sometimes three hours. I remember being so exhausted when we were done but I always determined to spend a little time with each gift before bed. That could push bedtime to 3 or 4 a.m.
Christmas day was reserved for sleeping in, receiving visitors and eating leftovers.
◊ Elaine D. Briseño
10 Family tamale making
A staple of the New Mexico holiday season is tamales.
While tamales can be purchased at local stores and restaurants, getting together for a tamale-making session is a tradition for many New Mexico families. Putting tamales together can be labor intensive but the payoff is well worth it.
I remember sitting around my grandma’s kitchen table when I was very young watching the adults put the tamales together. The tamales were always made for New Year’s Eve a few days ahead of time. They would start about 10 a.m. in the morning with different people coming and going all day for shifts. The result six hours later was about 50 dozen tamales.
There was always a lot of laughing in between the assembling and it’s one of my favorite childhood memories. I didn’t even care that much for tamales (I used to eat them with ketchup) but I still loved the process.
My sister and I revived the tradition recently by getting together with our mother and a couple of girlfriends. This time there was no ketchup but there were adult beverages and still plenty of laughter, fun and the formation of more great memories.
◊ Elaine D. Briseño
On my very first Christmas in New Mexico, I was introduced to a delicious holiday tradition.
My future mother-in-law brought out a huge, battered tin and offered me a cookie. Not just any cookie. A rich, crumbly bizcochito. It was truly cookie heaven. (It went over much, much better than the traditional, spicy posole, which my Midwestern mouth was not prepared for – though I came to enjoy that as well.)
Bizcochitos, the New Mexico state cookie, are available in many bakeries – Golden Crown Panaderia, Celina’s Biscochitos, to name just a couple – but nothing – NOTHING – beats homemade and Melba Olona’s bizcochitos are the absolute best.
Savored with a cup of coffee – or better yet a glass of ice-cold milk – it’s the scent and taste of Christmas.
◊ Helen Taylor
12 Bugg Lights
An Albuquerque family started a beloved tradition in 1971 that has been enjoyed by multiple generations.
After 31 years, Norman and Joyce Bugg’s elaborate light display outgrew their Northeast Heights neighborhood, and after stops in a shopping center near Budaghers and at Menaul School, the fantastical “Bugg Lights” took up residence at Harvey House in Belen.
It’s worth the drive.
More than 300,000 lights, vintage and homemade Christmas decorations, 50-plus Christmas trees, nativity scenes, food, crafts, music and more entertain kids and adults.
The display runs through Dec. 31 and admission is free, though donations are appreciated.
Consider hopping on the Rail Runner for the trip.
◊ Helen Taylor