Christmas in Santa Fe, New Mexico
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
Published: December 16, 2005, New York Times
FIRST, there is the smell. Perhaps nothing defines Santa Fe at Christmas so much as the piquant scent of piñón wood in the clear night air, the temperature hovering in single digits, the smoke an enveloping garland of warmth extending from faux-brick hearths in modest doublewides to sculptured kiva fireplaces in the corners of art galleries on Canyon Road.
It is fitting that red and green are the colors of chili.
For the last 25 years or so, I have spent Christmases visiting family in Santa Fe, the spirit of the season beginning en route from the Albuquerque airport on I-25, where piñón trees planted in the highway medians shimmer with tinsel - a gift of generosity by anonymous residents who brave traffic barreling at 80 miles an hour to perform a rash act of public beauty.
Some people go so far as to compare the high desert expanses of northern New Mexico to the Holy Land. But the Holy Land doesn't have posole - the traditional New Mexico pork and hominy stew - tamales, blue corn tortillas or bizcochitos, the tiny anise Christmas cookies that have the improbable honor of being the official state cookie of New Mexico.
Santa Fe can often OD on its own preciousness (witness the unfortunate preponderance of dogs with Christmas-light antlers).
But more deeply, it is a place of ritual, in which the area's distinctive blend of Indian and Hispanic cultures is played out in seasonal traditions that feel centuries away from Home Depot U.S.A.
On Christmas Eve, the simple act of creating lanterns by plunking candles in scoops of sand in paper bags, to be placed by the hundreds on rooftops, transforms historic adobes into luminous silhouettes.
For a few hours during the city's famous farolito walk, on that evening, usually in the biting cold, cars are verboten, electric street lights are turned off and the pulse of modern life grows faint. While tourists mob Canyon Road, the city's art gallery ghetto, locals descend on historic side streets like Acequia Madre, breaking into spontaneous Christmas carols while huddling around fragrant bonfires of stacked piñón wood. In Plaza Fatima, a hidden side street lined with adobe walls ending in a courtyard, kids stand transfixed by the "farolito train" on a Lionel track. Then there are the "flying farolitos" - glowing tetrahedrons of light that sail cometlike across the sky, the evanescent work of Arvo Thomson, a German-born solar energy system installer.
Like much of Santa Fe, the farolitos are in fact a somewhat modern confection, part of "the myth of Santa Fe," in the words of the architectural historian Chris Wilson. Early in the century, a coterie of architects, artists, archaeologists and tourist promoters got together and decreed Santa Fe's adobe look, later codified into law, including sprawling adobe compounds inhabited by rich anglos who now drive BMW S.U.V.'s while fantasizing about living in Indian pueblos. The farolitos were added to the mix in 1971 by a group of neighborhood associations celebrating a zoning ordinance protecting against rampant overdevelopment.
A debate now rages over "electro-litos," the electrified pretenders that blanket the downtown plaza and most hotels. "They have no aesthetic value," said John Pen La Farge, a Santa Fe native and son of the writer Oliver La Farge. "They're like a screw top on a wine bottle."
Thus, the twist on an old joke in a town that fetishizes history, especially its own:
Q: How many Santa Feans does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One to climb the ladder and screw it in, and four to stand around saying they liked it better the way it was.
The town's relentless tastefulness can make one pine for blow-up Santas and a loudspeaker blaring the "Chipmunks' Greatest Christmas Hits." The counterpoint: the pull of ritual, arguably stronger than in any other part of the country.
In Hispanic communities like Bernalillo, north of Albuquerque, and tiny hamlets like Santa Cruz de la Cañada outside Espanola, the nine days leading up to Christmas are the time of "las posadas," house-to-house re-enactments of Mary and Joseph's search for a "room at the inn" serenaded by Spanish hymns. In Santa Fe on Christmas Eve, the Cathedral of St. Francis, built between 1869 and 1886, celebrates a flotilla of Masses in Spanish and English, including a children's Mass, a Midnight Mass and a mariachi Mass on Christmas morning.
Beyond family, Christmas Day for me means a visit to the dances at Santo Domingo Pueblo, when the dirt plaza, or town square, becomes a Cecil B. De Mille-scale production of the spirit - some 500 dancers, animated by a chorus of men with sonorous voices whose drumming feels like the beat of the earth's heart.
The residents who aren't dancing watch from rooftops and balconies or from ringside lawn chairs, bundled in dazzingly colorful Pendleton blankets for warmth.
THE day lingers long past Christmas: the blue sky contrasting with the red earth, the tinkling of the bells and rattles on the dancers' belts and moccasins, the whiff of piñón, the long lines of dancers of all ages moving in unison to the drums, "the ceaseless downtread, always to the earth's centre," as D. H. Lawrence wrote of the Taos Pueblo.
Dances at Santo Domingo, one of the most conservative of the region's eight pueblos, tend to draw fewer tourists. Although dances vary from pueblo to pueblo and year by year, they are all "a form of communal prayer," in the words of the anthropologist Jill D. Sweet. They mark the joining of native and Catholic holy days. Among them are the Mattachines and Comanche dances, hybrid forms strongly influenced by the Spanish-colonial past - including conquest, "a legacy of conflict and interdependence," said James F. Brooks, the president of the School of American Research in Santa Fe.
Of course, many visitors come to town strictly for R. & R. The skiers get up at the crack of dawn, fighting at hotel breakfasts over who gets first crack at the automatic waffle maker. Make no mistake: Santa Fe at Christmas can be an utter zoo, especially if you have your heart set on lunch at Café Pasqual's. (Hint: try Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, far from the plaza, home of killer margaritas and blue corn enchiladas). When our two boys were in the Thomas the Tank Engine phase, my husband and I always made time for the Santa Fe Southern Railway's scenic 36-mile round trip to Lamy in vintage railcars. Those who want to go native should leave the plaza and head straight for the arroyo, the dried riverbed that is the fleece set's Champs Elysées.
More off the beaten track is Tsankawi, a little known unexcavated portion of Bandelier. Built in 1400 by the Anasazi, who lived on the mesa top, the hike follows ancestral trails up the rock, the steps literally worn into the stone. Tsankawi is rich with petroglyphs, and because it is little traveled, there is a sense of discovery about it all. On the way back, we often stop for chicken and green chili sandwiches at the Tesuque Village Market. Tesuque, a community outside town where $2 million adobes commune with trailers, is the preferred ZIP code for celebs who want to keep a low profile.
Mornings, we bushwhack through the chamisa in the arroyo to what is now known as Museum Hill, with four of Santa Fe's amazing museums, including the Museum of International Folk Art and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. (The Case Trading Post is an excellent source for Indian jewelry).
Santa Fe, a national leader in body workers per capita, is home to Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese health spa like no other. There is nothing quite like slipping into a kimono and zoris in winter, navigating gravel paths as the bitter cold sets in. Then you plunk down into your outdoor hot tub, gazing at boughs of fragrant, snow-covered juniper and thanking the steam gods for concealing all your flaws. (Sadly, I have never tried the signature facial of pulverized nightingale droppings, said to be the fave of geishas.)
Each year, before leaving Santa Fe, we steel ourselves to dodge the kitsch and head to the plaza for a last-minute museum and shopping blitzkrieg. Serious shopping lust invariably strikes under the portale at the Palace of the Governors, where local Indian craft makers, who are themselves an official museum exhibit, display their wares.
At Kaune's Foodtown, a fancy grocery store, we stock up on fresh blue corn tortillas and then stash them in our luggage to take back to our home in California. We hoard them in the freezer, unthawing them only on very special occasions and extending Christmas in Santa Fe until next year.
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