Written by Ungelbah Davila
There is no time more idyllic in New Mexico than during the Holidays. This year we are having an exceptionally weathered season with much coveted rain and snow. In our home base of Albuquerque, we are in the Rio Grande Valley where snow sometimes misses us altogether, but this year we have already woken up to the soft white dusting that usually skips us until January.
To the north of us, our friends and family in Santa Fe and the northern New Mexico Pueblos see a different picture where towns, villages and pueblos become postcard tableaus where snow regularly covers their earthy adobe walls and bright red chile ristras. To the south of us in Socorro and Las Cruces what communities lack in snow they make up for in brilliant lights, colorful ornaments and abundant seasonal cheer. Wherever you are in the state, the closer we get to December 25, the more dramatic it all becomes with traditions you can only find here, in New Mexico.
The Little Lanterns of New Mexico
When I think about iconic New Mexican Christmas traditions I immediately think about luminarias. Today’s luminarias consist of brown paper bags lined along paths or building walls. They contain a bit of sand to weigh them down and a small candle to illuminate them. In recent years we have advanced to the electric equivalent of this practice with bag-covered electric lights that you can string along and flip a switch to ignite. The written description, however, does zero justice to the visual effect. If you’re reading this and have never seen them for yourself, you probably envision a trash fire. I assure you these humble lanterns are the exact opposite.
The smarties over at the National Park Service explain this tradition the best:
“Luminarias weren't always contained in brown paper bags, though. Before the square-bottomed paper bag was patented in 1872, small stacks of Piñon bark and dry wood were made, and the small bonfires were lit along roadways. This is where the controversy around the names arises. North of Santa Fe, ‘farolito’ is the name for the paper lantern and ‘luminaria’ is the small stacks of firewood, while south of Santa Fe, New Mexicans call the paper lanterns ‘luminarias.’
The luminaria tradition of the Rio Grande Valley may have originated in 1590 when small bonfires were lit by Gaspar Castano de Sosa’s men to guide a scout back to their camp. Pueblos picked up luminaria traditions during Spanish colonization. Some of those traditions are still practiced today. The Picuris Pueblo has a torchlight procession and performs traditional dances on Christmas Eve. Acoma Pueblo lines the road into the Pueblo with over two thousand luminarias every year. In New Mexican Catholic traditions, luminarias and farolitos were only lit on Christmas Eve to symbolically guide the Holy Family on their journey.”
However you choose to identify the little lanterns of New Mexico, their presence is an iconic part of our holiday landscape.
New Mexican cuisine is unique to anywhere else in the world. It’s almost like there’s an unspoken rule that our traditional recipes must never cross the state line. I’m sure there are families in Southern Colorado and other bordering regions that cook like us, but I’ve never found real New Mexico food in any commercial setting past Las Cruces, Chama, Gallup and Tucumcari – our borderland keepers of the secret sauce.
To go hand in hand with our unique food is our unique spelling. In most Spanish-speaking countries the dish is spelled Pozole, but you won’t find a “z” on the menu here in NM. Likewise, we grow and make chilé, and it’s nothing like “chili” or for that matter “chilly.” We might spell “tamale” like Google suggests, but we are still the state whose legislature deliberated for hours on how to officially spell our state cook – the biscochito – again tossing out that z.
All of these NM-specific foods can be found year-round, but during Christmas, they are a staple, nay, the mana of the season, the fuel of the festivity.
Posole, Tamales, Biscochitos and lots and lots of Red Chilé (sauce) make up the bulk of our Holiday feasts. For those of us that don’t have the time to mix masa, orders for tamales and biscochitos start months in advance, and in my opinion, the tamales and biscochitos bought out of trunks and ice chests in parking lots and along the roadside are the most authentic and delightful way to go. I’ve never met either that didn’t make my heart happy.
As for Posole: I grew up very close to my Nana Linda, my father’s mother from the Tomé Land Grant, east of Los Lunas. She married my grandpa Frank and they raised their family, and me, on a cattle ranch in Southwestern New Mexico. I have this memory of her cooking something that she would tell me was “hominy.” For some reason this word felt good to say and I held onto it. Now hominy is the big puffy white corn that is the primary ingredient in posole, along with red or green chile and meat. But in my little brain, I thought it was something otherworldly because we would attend Christmas Mass in our little town and they would talk about the “Homily.” I laugh now thinking about how I thought Nana was making holy stew for us at Christmas time. In a way, she was!
In communities in New Mexico a nine day celebration takes place to represent the 9 months that Mary carried Jesus in her womb. The word “posada” translated to “lodging” in English, and represents the Holy Family’s search for shelter in Bethlehem. In Taos, for example, Las Posaditas visit different homes each night and are sent away until the ninth night when they are given shelter, or posada, as well as the aforementioned foods and lighted pathway.
Around the state, Las Posadas can manifest in smaller enactments, in holiday productions and in churches and private homes. In Albuquerque, the National Institute of Flamenco produces an annual show called “La Estrella,” that depicts the Posada through flamenco dance.
However the story is presented, it is an engaging reenactment of the journey Mary and Joseph took on their journey to the manger and a cornerstone of New Mexican holiday traditions.