Photography ©Avery Pearson.

The Spirit of Holidays Past

Santa Fe’s Christmas Traditions

by MK Mendoza with contributions by Brian Nelson

Historically speaking, Santa Fe has always done the holiday season right. Given the global pandemic, and that most holiday celebrations will be more subdued this year, we decided to keep the spirit alive by recollecting on a few of the city’s deeply cherished traditions that make The City Different’s winter season magical. Now, sit back and reminisce with us on holidays past.

The season commences the day after Thanksgiving with the twinkling of lights found at the historic Santa Fe Plaza, where all gather in pre-glow celebration to welcome their gleaming presence. Everyone from the mayor to the chief of police greet locals and international visitors alike, often dawning Santa hats and blinking necklaces. People mingle among the holiday décor before the sun goes down – sipping hot cocoa, listening to live music, singing Christmas carols, consuming tamales and red chile posole, and savoring the anise-infused, melt-in-your mouth cookie known as biscochitos (the only official “state cookie”).

Biscochitos and a glass of milk
Biscochitos, the only official "state cookie" of New Mexico, are a staple during the winter holidays. Photography ©Avery Pearson.

Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive in their holiday-dressed vintage fire truck just as the anticipatory dark arrives. Once everyone is nestled into their special cozy place, the crowd collectively chants the countdown that cues the mayor to officially “flip the switch,” lighting up not just the Christmas tree but a vast array of vegetation that peppers the entire plaza with a dazzling display of multi-colored glimmering lights.

For the history buff, Santa Fe’s annual Christmas at the Palace, held at the Palace of the Governors, may be the season’s greeting of choice. Constructed in the early 17th century, this adobe stronghold located on the plaza has been designated both a Registered National Historic Landmark and an American Treasure. In addition to being the state’s history museum, the Palace of the Governors is also the oldest government building in the country still in operation. During Christmas at the Palace, visitors are invited into the majestic compound to share in New Mexico’s historic holiday spirit. Cider and biscochitos abound as revelers walk the antique rooms filled with exhibitions of Spanish colonial art and live music, reflecting the time-honored traditions of the Spanish settlers and Pueblo people. Luminarias and farolitos warm the antique courtyard, and even seasonally-themed piñatas in honor of the city’s Mexican heritage can be found. Sure to delight the entire family, topping off the venture is a variety of old-fashioned activities, including operating an antique printing press and craft-making, and of course a visit with Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

Luminarias and farolitos warm the antique courtyard, and even seasonally-themed piñatas in honor of the city’s Mexican heritage can be found.

The Catholic Christmas tradition of Las Posadas was first brought to Santa Fe by Spanish Augustinian friars as they evangelized the New World in the 16th century. It is a theatrical re-enactment of the legendary journey to Bethlehem made by Mary and Joseph before giving birth to the baby Jesus. Their stage: the Santa Fe Plaza, filled with audience participants who join in procession behind the couple with candles in hand, singing songs and seeking shelter in various stops along the way. The couple is turned away by both inn keeper and devil—Santa Fe’s own unique addition born from neighborhood renditions of the 1980’s includes devils on rooftops shooing the crowd in 16th century era Spanish—all of whom are quickly rebuffed by the crowd’s overwhelming boos as they continue their journey, culminating at the Palace of the Governors where they celebrate with carols, entertainment, cookies and cider.

The jewel in the crown of Santa Fe’s holiday season is the Canyon Road Farolito Walk on Christmas Eve, turning the world class gallery road into a shimmering winter wonderland. Another tradition born from neighborhood celebrations, farolitos, the small paper bags filled with sand and a votive candle, are placed along streets, pathways and multi-layered adobe walls, reflecting against winter’s sparkling snow and suspending time into unending wonder and awe. This seasonal stroll among these flickering bags of luminescence includes hot cocoa, cider, biscochitos and holiday carols to sing along the highly traversed pathway.

the Santa Fe Plaza in Winter
Businesses on the Santa Fe Plaza participate in holiday decorations, from evergreens to farolitos on rooftops. Photography ©Avery Pearson.

Santa Fe has forever been a melting pot of Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican and American Western culture, and this fusion has a unique spiritual manifestation during the holiday season: the Matachine Dancers. With roots in 17th century Spain, and brought shortly thereafter to the New World, versions of this masked dance between Good and Evil can be found from Northern New Mexico south to Peru. Displaying both pre- and post-Christianity religious symbolism, and with variations ranging just as much in style as geography, this story-driven dance transcends any one spiritual practice to illuminate the power of faith, unity and the triumph of good over evil. Attending a Matachine Dance offers a glimpse at one of the oldest traditions of New Mexico culture: the Matachines de San Lorenzo in Bernalillo have been performing for more than 300 years.

As we drift from memories of holidays past back into the present, the angelic sounds of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale offer us a glimmer of hope during this socially-distanced holiday season. In lieu of their traditional winter concert season, SFDC is presenting Desert Chorale: Home For The Holidays, a virtual holiday program featuring Desert Chorale artists from their homes across the nation performing quartets, duets, and solo pieces, as well as a special finale including all twenty-four of the artists originally scheduled to sing with them this December. Virtual events mean that wherever you are this holiday season, you can enjoy the beauty and power of this incredible choral music.

There’s no denying that just like the rest of 2020, this year’s winter holidays will prove unique. Embrace the opportunity to develop some new traditions with family and friends; with a little ingenuity you just might find a new favorite way to celebrate has been hiding in plain sight.

MK Mendoza

MK Mendoza is a an Emmy award-winning television producer, entertainer, writer and entrepreneur. She has worked on productions ranging from the George Foster Peabody Award Winning documentary, Surviving Columbus, to the Emmy Award winning programs of Colores! and Breaking Bad, as well as such networks as HGTV, ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. She is the host of KSFR 101.1FM’s Wake-up Call.


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