From Red River J and I made our way to the Taos Pueblo for our first New Mexico Christmas Eve. The multi-storied adobe buildings at this UNESCO World Heritage site have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years by a Tiwa speaking Native American tribe of pueblo people. A 95,000 acre reservation surrounds this amazing site and about 4,500 people live within this area. They are known for being one of the most private, secretive, and conservative pueblos.
This Christmas Eve celebration certainly married aspects of both darkness and light. We arrived early and wandered in the sunlit plaza. The air was thick with the scent of cedar smoke and fresh fry bread and inside the gas-lit and fireplace-warmed pueblo shops homemade posole, chile, cookies and pies were being sold as well as beautiful handcrafted items - silver, leather, pottery, artwork.
As the sun set crowds of visitors steamed into the plaza, and at dusk the bells of San Geronimo began to toll. One by one the many stacks of dry pine were set ablaze in the open plaza and smoke began to fill the darkening sky.
As the orange flames of the bonfires danced the gathered crowds huddled closer for warmth - then carefully backed away as the flames rose and the heat intensified. Suddenly a procession, led by the Archbishop of Santa Fe and his acolytes, streamed from the church behind a statue (called a bulto) of the Virgin Mary dressed in white. I could see the crowd opening up to let them through as they slowly circled the large plaza, and every few hundred feet three or four men fired guns into the air.
When the procession finally reached us I found myself stunned silent by the costumed Matachine dancers who followed behind the statue, their faces covered with black fringed masks, their hands rhythmically shaking rattles, their covered feet both touching the ground and yet somehow seeming to not touch the ground at all. (Interestingly enough, the Matachine dance is not Native American but derived from an old religious ceremonial of southern Europe. It is of Moorish origin and was brought here by the Spanish).
Thin notes pulled from violins floated in the air like smoke. Women sang words in an unfamiliar language. A young girl, dressed in bride-like white, walked silently in the midst of the dancing men. When the guns were fired from only a few feet away I was physically moved backwards by their force. As quickly as the dream-like vision appeared it was gone - statue, priest, dancers, violins and singers retreating back towards the church.
We were left with the crowds and the mesmerizing bonfires that were quickly becoming blazing infernos - orange flames, black smoke and, eventually, toppling piles of burning wood. When I look at some of the still photos of the bonfires I see the shapes of enormous dancers in the flames - both human and animal forms. Probably just my imagination. Yet even the black smoke twisting from the burned-down piles behaved dramatically, adding to the mysterious feel of the evening.
In the Southwest I often feel the presence of the wild card in life's deck. Even the holidays here have managed to avoid becoming sugar-coated, white-washed and gentrified and instead acknowledge and celebrate deep and sometimes mysterious and macabre-seeming roots in Spanish, Mexican and Native American cultures. The "Land of Enchantment" is downright bewitching.
We finished up our Christmas Eve holiday in Taos with a dinner of traditional New Mexican food — plates of vegetarian tacos, enchiladas and chile rellenos followed by warm chocolate chipotle cake — at a sweet little spot called La Cueva. We're already planning a return visit to the pueblo on New Year's Day to witness the traditional Native American Turtle Dance, perhaps (if we feel daring enough) even camping in Carson National Forest on New Year's Eve...