People begin gathering as the last rays of sunlight move their way up the ancient adobe structures. These aren’t just tribal members. We’re talking people from town, all over the region, even some from foreign countries.
The bonfires around the village are lit.
As darkness begins to fall, the Vespers Mass in the San Geronimo Church are concluded and the Christmas Eve procession begins.
A group of men in traditional garb carry a statue of the Virgin Mary. People in the group sing religious hymns in English and Spanish. Men at the head of the procession fire hunting rifles from time to time. The gunfire can be deafening, so stand back.
The procession continues in a loop through the village plaza, and then it’s over.
The crowd remains around the fires for a while, warmed by the light and the constant parade of friends and relatives.
It’s simple, but as with anything involving tradition in New Mexico, there’s so much more to this.
At Picuris Pueblo in southern Taos County for instance, the tribe there does the Matachines Dance for Christmas. This performance dates back to a blend of traditions that began with the Moors, flowed into the Spanish who then brought it to the New World as a way to teach elements of Christianity through mythic theater. This dance is also done at Taos Pueblo, but only on rare occasions.
Taos Deer Dance
The interesting thing about the celebration at Taos is that it’s a blend of Christianity, Native beliefs and traditions that can only be said to have evolved as part of the unique quality of this region.
As such, some things can be talked about openly, while others — those specifically having to do with Native religion — cannot. For instance, on Christmas Day, the tribe will be performing the Deer Dance. This is a sacred ceremonial filled with meaning and vital importance for the world, but details about it are held tightly secret from outsiders.
“For many of the pueblo cultures, the deer is a very important animal,” tribal member Marcie Winters says. “The dance is something that is difficult to explain, but it is a beautiful tradition to witness.”
Visitors in attendance are asked to respect the religious nature of the events by observing a ban on all cell phones, recording devices, and cameras. It is also requested that visitors refrain from conversing with tribal members about the cultural significance of the events.
Christmas celebrations at Taos Pueblo are a time honored and revered tradition whose origins date back hundreds of years beginning with the conquest and settlement of New Mexico by the colonial Spanish. Upon arriving in the New World, Spanish conquistadors and their accompanying settlers began the slow process of converting the Native population to Catholicism by constructing churches in each of the pueblos and assigning each location a patron saint.
Initial attempts to spread Christianity among the pueblos were met with hostility as the newcomers declared that traditional Native ceremonies were sacrilegious rituals and forbidden by decree of the clergy. It was only after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the reconquest of New Mexico by the Spanish in 1692 that the Pueblo peoples were allowed to freely practice their traditional religion once again.
One way this is evident is seen in the appearance of the tribe’s sacred clowns. These figures play an important role in the Deer Dance. Although their actions may be characterized as humorous, their function is important and worthy of respect. Those who misbehave around them may wind up thrown in the river — winter ice notwithstanding.
Native religion is much older than the Christian influence here and maintains a foothold in Pueblo Indian lives today. In the early part of the 20th century when Taos was “discovered” by Easterners who viewed the people and landscape here through an overlay of romantic ideals, it was easy to exploit this naturalistic quality by interpreting it through paintings, photography and florid writings. Before long, tribal people began to recognise the image-building taking place and so took back what they could by imposing certain restrictions.
That’s why today, at Taos Pueblo, visitors are asked to pay an entrance fee, as well as fees for photography or recording. During ceremonial occasions, though, the tribe strictly prohibits cell phones, cameras and all recording devices. Tribal officials who catch visitors ignoring this ban risk having their devices confiscated with no recourse.
On any average day, the village — noted as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO — is open to visitors during certain hours. Before and after that, the village belongs to residents who have moved freely among these walls for a thousand years or so. That’s something worth more than a passing thought.
It speaks to the nature of what people experience when they look up into the sky filled with billowing clouds of black smoke and sparks on Christmas Eve, to the upswell of emotion when seeing the flickering firelight amid the sound of gunfire and singing and soft footfalls in the snow, and to the innate sense that you’re witnessing something that feels ancient, tribal and alive.
This is what we do.
For more information, contact the Taos Pueblo Tourism Office at (575) 758-1028 or visit www.taospueblo.com.
Editor’s note: The photos accompanying this story were taken by Tempo editor Rick Romancito by special permission several years ago. This was the one and only time this was done.