Carol and I moved to New Mexico in 1987. Our only child Jake was born in the village of Corrales three years later. In my book Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West, I wrote about Jake’s first “real” Christmas,” the first that would register “as more than a glow of candlelight in his eyes.” In this blog and the next, I’ll reprise that story, one that began with my ruminations on the scope and character and tragedy of homelessness in the United States, continued with our introduction to the pleasures of Christmas in New Mexico, and ended, on Christmas Eve, at a homeless shelter in Santa Fe.
Christmas in New Mexico is a vibrant, luminous holiday, a grand synthesis of delights combining the old and familiar with the new, the exotic, and the unexpected. The combination is exactly right, for it places personal experience of Christmas at the center, where it belongs, and at the same time points toward a more universal expression of the season that is paramount yet easily overlooked. For an old conservative in these matters, raised in the Lake Erie snowbelt, trained in the preeminence of the scotch pine in the living room and the blizzard at the door, I was alarmed not many years ago to find myself in New Mexico, my somewhat mysterious new home, with this most precisely defined of holidays approaching. Could a place that revered salsa music and pinto beans measure up to my exacting standards for Christmas?
I had nothing to fear. This is a state whose forests are deep and piney, whose ski areas boast some of the deepest and fluffiest snow to be found anywhere in the country. Through the winter the northern frontier towns crackle in delicious subzero temperatures that can make even the Lake Erie region seem temperate. Carol and I found a scotch pine at a local tree lot. On Christmas Eve the snow started flying, and by morning several inches of powder lay on the ground. To my surprise I felt at home, properly connected to family and friends, to childhood and memories, to the personally designed traditions that give Christmas its unique and irresistible character.
Along with the old, I found much here that was new to heighten my enjoyment of the holiday. There was, to begin with, the geography of New Mexico. Much of the state outside the northern mountains has the look and feel of the place where Christmas began. Water is scarce. The land is harsh. Traveling a back road on a gray winter day, one has an easy time imagining the howling wastes of the Old Testament. One might even see shepherds tending their flocks on the treeless expanses of the southeast or along an arroyo on Diné lands or on the intermountain park that rolls south from the town of Chama.
Through the crisp evenings leading up to Christmas, the air reels from the dreamy aromas of piñon and juniper. Then on the final night the darkness comes alive with the assembled light of untold numbers of farolitos. The farolito is a Spanish invention: a paper bag containing a few handfuls of sand and a tiny candle. Two or three farolitos don’t amount to much, but New Mexicans set them out by the dozens in front yards, by the thousands in city plazas. Each timid glow joins the next and then the next, and soon the state where light is as essential as food and water is afire, a new star in the firmament. Planes steer by it. Satellite networks are disturbed. Lost sheep find their way home.
The Native American celebration of Christmas is an explosion of music, dance, and pageantry that lasts for days and can make visitors forget their fruitcake and their eggnog. At some of the pueblos, men fly like eagles. (This actually happens.) At San Juan, bogeymen devour naughty children. (This is only a simulation.) At several pueblos, actors perform Los Matachines, a four-centuries-old drama rooted partly in Aztec tradition, partly in medieval mystery play. Often, Anglos and Hispanics are invited into the homes of Indians to join in the feasting. To a person so invited, such an invitation, coming from one who might be forgiven for choosing selfishness over generosity, may come as a shock. Yet the practice only expresses the theme of goodwill toward all people, which under the circumstances ought not to be surprising. That it is may produce a second and even greater shock.
Paradoxically, the opening up of the boundaries of Christmas that is possible in New Mexico has a narrowing effect as well. By looking beyond one’s personal definition of the holiday to other, more challenging definitions, one begins to see what is unique to each and what is common to all. The year of my first Santa Fe Christmas, I caught sight of something I had forgotten long ago, an element of the holidays that is common to all traditions: an image of a poor carpenter and his wife far from home seeking shelter from the cold and the night.
At a little over a year of age, Jake was about to celebrate his first Christmas that would register as more than a glow of candlelight in his eyes. He delighted in the tree and quickly adopted a set of favorite ornaments on the lower branches. Several times a day he collected the ornaments and deposited them in his toy box. On Christmas morning he would learn that packages contain surprises, and he would learn to liberate the latter from the former, not always elegantly. Sometimes he asked Carol or me to lift him up to view the manger scene on the mantle over the fireplace. Chipped and faded, a relic of sixty Christmases past, it seemed to speak to him like a revered member of the family. He gazed at the figures one by one—the wise men, the cow with three legs, the three figures grouped at the center whom he understood to be mother, father, and child.
Late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, as the frail winter sky shattered and fell and the grand light of the farolitos rose up over New Mexico, we three drove to Santa Fe. It was about an hour from our house, up the storied valley that the Spanish traversed on their way to Santa Fe, where the Puebloans dwell and the river shapes the land. Clouds were moving in and the air was bitterly cold. Snow was forecast for later in the evening.
Unlike most cities, which on Christmas Eve pause for a few hours of deep breathing and introspection, Santa Fe slips into a state of heightened activity. Strollers bundled in furs and ski jackets crowd the sidewalks. Carolers gather at street corners. Cars creep bumper to bumper around the plaza, and a driver occasionally lowers a window to shout greetings to a passerby. In the nearby neighborhoods, residents kneel in their front yards to kindle luminarias—small fires of piñon logs, symbols of the fires of the shepherds of Bethlehem. More light, and it is riveting: At each luminaria a crowd of revelers gathers to gossip or to stare into the coals, perhaps to enjoy warm drinks provided by the fire builder.
We passed through the center of town and exited the historical zone to the north. As though we had crossed a border into a new land, we saw the character of the surroundings change at once. The homes grew smaller and less imposing. Chain-link fences separated some of the lots. Old American-made cars stood in the driveways. Here and there, graffiti-marred walls crowded
the sidewalks. As we drove down a dark street toward our destination, a Labrador retriever, lost and wild-eyed, charged past us into the night. We turned at the Praise Tabernacle and pulled into the parking lot at 804 Alarid Street—St. Elizabeth Shelter for the Homeless. It seemed a likely place to locate an ornament of spirit, hope, and dignity that we could hang on our Christmas tree.
[To be continued. I’ll post the remainder of the story on Christmas Eve. RLR]
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Taos Ski Valley: Murray Foubister, Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Photographs_by_Murray_Foubister
Farolitos: Camera Fiend at English Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons