La nochebuena

A Taos Pueblo Christmas Eve experienced for the first time

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A reunion of friends, a mysticism of spirit, a celebration of warmth and light — these are the elements that make Christmas Eve at Taos Pueblo a sacred and memorable holiday event. The evening service and procession of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by towering bonfires represents a celebration that weaves together the Catholic faith introduced by the Spanish and the traditional Taos Pueblo religion.

Visitors are invited to this and other feast days at the Pueblo. Ilona Spruce, director of the Tourism Office at Taos Pueblo, says, “Everyone is welcome to our home. Be mindful and respectful that you are in someone’s home. We open our home to everyone so that they can enjoy what makes Taos Pueblo and Taos special. We invite you to come share in making memories with our community and your own family. The Christmas Eve celebration is something you won’t forget.”

Those who have attended this sacred celebration remember it with reverence. I’ve always wanted to go to the Christmas Eve celebration, but instead visited family in Colorado in the past. This year, I decided to stay home so I could go for the first time. In order to prepare for my visit, I asked those who had attended what made the experience special for them.

Holy night

It quickly became obvious from talking with others that everyone who attends becomes part of the beauty and spirt of the event. Because some of the elements of the celebration are part of Native religion, they are not discussed with non-tribal members. Those who come with an open heart and a spirit of reverence may find their own deep and special meaning in this sacred ceremony on Christmas Eve at Taos Pueblo.

Vespers and procession

The Vespers Mass at the Pueblo’s San Geronimo Chapel honoring the Virgin Mary begins the celebration. As the service concludes around dusk, the statue of the Virgin is carried aloft upon a dais by men of the Pueblo. The procession passes through the winter night, weaving around blazing bonfires accompanied by the ringing of bells and shooting of rifles — a tradition of welcoming La Nochebuena (the good night) and La Navidad (Christmas — the birth of Christ). The scent of burning ocote (highly resinous pine) wood permeates the dark winter air like incense.

A profound experience is how participants describe the event. They remember the glow of the bonfires against the warmth of the adobe walls, and the faces of friends. Georgia Gersh of Taos says, “I’ve been going since I was very young, it is my favorite holiday tradition; a time for locals and visitors to gather in this sacred place and witness the graceful interweave of Catholic and Native culture. It’s where I see all of my friends at least once before the year is over.”

Ancient, trival and alive

Many notable writers have written about the Taos Pueblo Christmas Eve experience, including D.H. Lawrence who penned, “Never shall I forget the Christmas dances at Taos, twilight, snow, the darkness coming over the great wintry mountains and the lonely pueblo, then suddenly, again, like dark calling dark, the deep Indian cluster — singing around the drum, wild and awful, suddenly rousing on the lost dusk as the procession starts. And then the bonfires leaping suddenly in spurts of high flame, columns of sudden flame forming an alley for the procession” (“New Mexico” typescript, D.H. Lawrence Papers, AC 131-p, Angélico Chávez History Library, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe).

To describe the tradition even further, the following is an excerpt from a 2012 article by Nathan Suazo and Rick Romancito for The Taos News, “A Taos Pueblo Christmas is like no other”:

“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 ...

“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 ..."

“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”.

Honoring of Mary

“The first time I went to the Pueblo on Christmas Eve, I started with the church service,” recalls Eileen Wiard. “Being raised Catholic, and not participating in that tradition for many years, I was surprised and moved by the focus of the service. It was a celebration, in gratitude to Mary for giving birth to Jesus; for going through labor, delivery and the pains of childbirth, which I had never, ever heard in all my years at St. Mary’s in Torrington, Connecticut. I could feel the presence of the sacred in physical humanity and an honoring of the gift of a woman’s body in service to life. The bonfires were the tallest pillars of fire I had ever seen. Such a spectacle!”

Advice

“Get there early, dress warmly with layers and take a thermos with a warm beverage,” suggests Miriam Garay Foronda. Also, it’s a good idea to wear a washable winter coat — it gets smoky.

Taos Pueblo

The Pueblo has been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years. The village, with its multistoried adobe buildings, is home to about 150 people with the rest of the tribal members making their homes nearby on Pueblo land. It is both a National Historic Landmark and a World Heritage Site as designated by UNESCO. The Pueblo people welcome visitors to learn about their history andvisit the shops featuring Native-made arts and crafts. All items are tax-free. Please keep in mind that Taos Pueblo is indeed a home and not all doors lead into shops. The shops are clearly marked and their doors are often already open.

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