The Writing Traveler: Christmas in the Streets of Santa Fe

Las Posadas come strolling slowly into the Plaza of Santa Fe, an elaborate procession of young and old to commemorate the difficult journey of Mary and Joseph as they struggled to find lodging for the birth of the Christ Child. Photograph: New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs

The ritual of Las Posadas was started by a man of the church who, deep within Mexico, used an Aztec festival to teach about the birth of Christ.

IN THE CHILLED PLAZA OF SANTA FE, with a soft snow gently touching the rooftops, it is the night of Las Posadas, a tradition as old as memory and, some tell me, as old as the Christmas star that shone once and shines still and has not forgotten the lost and lonely pueblos in the faraway reaches of New Mexico.

We have followed the crowd down to the edge of the Plaza as darkness drapes itself around the adobe walls of an ancient city where a Christmas feast may not be the traditional turkey and dressing, but rather tamales, blue corn tortillas, posole – a time-honored Southwestern pork and hominy stew – and bizcochitos, the tiny anise Christmas cookies that have become recognized as the official state cookie of New Mexico.

The streets are empty. No cars are allowed anywhere near the Plaza. During these nine days of Christmas, Santa Fe prefers the décor of another time, a simple time.  On the aging and historic side streets, we hear the voices of the town break out into Christmas carols. They huddle around fragrant bonfires of stacked pinon wood.

Homemade lanterns by the hundreds – known as farolitos – line the rooftops, fashioned as they were created so many years ago. Luminous paper bags are filled with sand, and a lit candle has been placed in each bag. They can burn for hours and become one with the stars that glitter beyond the splintered breaks in the clouds.

For the moment, electricity has been forgotten.

Well, not entirely forgotten.

Strands of electric lights have been strung across hotels, around balconies, and throughout the trees that cluster together in the Plaza.

The traditionalists aren’t pleased at all.  It is a time of reverence and ritual, they say. It is not a time for Santa Fe to become electrified. “The light bulbs have no aesthetic value,” says one. “They’re like a screw top on a wine bottle.”

The feud festers, but all is forgiven, at least ignored, with the coming of Las Posadas. It is a tradition, some believe, that was begun in 1538 by Friar San Ignacio de Loyola. Or maybe it was Friar Pedro de Ganis. No one knows for sure.

But they do agree that the ritual was started by a man of the church who, deep within Mexico, used an Aztec festival to teach about the birth of Christ. It was his aim to replace the nine-day celebration of the birth of the Aztec Sun god with a Christian and Christmas novena.

Las Posadas come strolling slowly into the Plaza of Santa Fe, an elaborate procession of young and old to commemorate the difficult journey of Mary and Joseph as they struggled to find lodging for the birth of the Christ Child.

Behind them walk the pilgrims holding small, lit candles, trying desperately to keep the night winds from snuffing out the flames. Some are singing. Words in Spanish. Words in English. Words in a Native American tongue. And they all blend together with the same message.

There is no room at the Inn.

A few are strumming guitars. The sidewalks are filled with people who begin to file out into the street and become pilgrims themselves. Some have brought their candles. Others are given candles. The lights flicker and are multiplied, one at a time, one after another.

On the holy couple goes, searching for a place to spend the night.  And up on the balconies and ledges of downtown buildings are mysterious figures, dressed in black, nothing more than shadows, refusing them shelter, urging them to go elsewhere and lose themselves in the night itself.

The procession moves around the Plaza, and the pilgrims fade into the doorways of Santa Fe’s most historic places. On Christmas Eve, the Cathedral of St. Francis, built between 1869 and 1886, celebrates a flotilla of masses in both Spanish and English. Baroque music and Old English carols fill the historic sanctuary of the Loretto Chapel.

We ducked into the Palace of the Governor, weaving our way among the Native American artists who are displaying their work, and their artistry is unrivaled anywhere in the world of jewelry making. The sidewalk, in the glow of the farolitos, is aglow with silver and turquoise, everything from rings and necklaces to bracelets and belt buckles.

Each piece is distinctive and a work of art. Each has the personality of the artist carved into the silver, shaped in the turquoise. Inside the Palace, we move from room to room, from carol to carol, from story to story.  It is a place of reverence, a shelter from the biting winds outside, a chance to warm the chill with hot cider.

Christmas seemed so right in Santa Fe. But then, I once read in the New York Times that the high desert of northern New Mexico could be favorably compared to the Holy Land.

Maybe so.

Maybe Santa Fe and New Mexico really are the perfect places to spend Christmas. After all, even so much of its food is the color of Christmas. The soul of Santa Fe cooking has and always will be its chilies. And its chilies are red and green.

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