Twelve days of a Taos Christmas

Katharine Egli Matachinas is a dramatic dance whose origins are more Spanish than American Indian having originated in Spain during the 16th century. It is based on a drama that was written about the conversion of the Moors to Christianity. The Pueblo will choose to feature either Matachinas or the Deer Dance on Christmas Day at a time to be determined.

Taoseños are known for getting people to gather for events and causes, and in no other time of year is that more true than during the winter holidays. No matter what is going on in the outside world, our traditions are intact and inspirational, and our desire to come together as a community is as strong as ever.

With so many free Christmas events to witness, it can be daunting to know where to start.

Here are some of our favorites spread out over 12 days:

Day 1

The 2018 Taos holiday season officially kicks off with the 31st Annual Yuletide Caroling and Tree Lighting on Nov. 30 from 4-6 p.m. The lighting of the Town Christmas tree at Historic Taos Plaza is hosted by Taos Mayor Dan Barrone. Join Taoseños for live entertainment, and a meet and greet with special guests Mr. & Mrs. Claus. And who doesn’t want to meet “The Mean One” himself, Mr. Grinch, who loves to crash the party. Enjoy complimentary hot chocolate and cookies.

Day 2

The historic, narrow Ledoux Street near Taos Plaza glows with the light from farolitos and luminarias on Dec. 1 from 5-7 p.m. during “Taos’ block party,” Lighting Ledoux. Galleries, shops and museums are open late, offering holiday food and drink. People gather around the fires and share their stories in the cool starlit night.

Father Winter crashes the party riding atop his festive, bulb-covered old fire truck that makes its way around Taos Plaza. And if you miss him there, don’t worry — he likes to take a stroll down Ledoux, too.

People of different cultures celebrate the birth of Christ with various customs. Here in New Mexico, we have one of the most beautiful of those customs found anywhere. In Northern New Mexico, “ luminarias” are what most people would call bonfires. Luminarias were introduced by the first Spaniards to colonize New Mexico. They stacked piñon wood in a square about two feet high and filled the center with wood rich in pitch to make a roaring fire. This was used to light the road as people made their way to La Misa del Gallo, the Midnight Mass, at their parish church on Christmas Eve.

The Spaniards also brought with them stories of hanging lamps, called faroles. They were simply a small votive candle set in a few inches of sand placed in the bottom of a paper bag with the opening folded about an inch down. They were then hung with wire. During Christmastime, the faroles’ peaceful, yellow glow decorated porches and tree branches.

Spanish women started this tradition in the Land of Enchantment, which has spread throughout much of the U.S.

“The women all wished to have these faroles to decorate their homes, but because they lived in the New World they did not have such conveniences,” wrote Oclides Quintana Tenorio for the Taos County Historical Society. “One day, a caravan from Veracruz, Mexico came through the area. The caravan brought dishes of fine China, and these dishes were wrapped in very colorful paper, paper that felt as fine as silk. When they saw these papers, the women decided to make faroles with them. They made their faroles and put a candle inside each. When they saw how brilliant the colors were, the people were in awe. The colors were like the blue of the sky, the red of a sunset and the yellow of the aspens in the fall in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There was no wire or string in the New World, so they had to put the bags on the roof of their houses or on the ground and called them ‘farolitos.’ That is how this wonderful custom began and why it has continued to awe into modern times.”

Day 3

For 17 years, the Taos Jewish Center has hosted the Peace Chanukah, a night of “Peace on Earth,” an all-inclusive celebration of lights and featured speakers from a variety of religious backgrounds. This year’s inspirational gathering will be held Dec. 5 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church in Taos, 208 Camino de Santiago.

No admittance fee, but a canned good donation for local charities is appreciated.

Day 4

The John Dunn House Shops and Bent Street store fronts and walkways glow from farolitos and luminarias and come alive with dancers and carolers during the 30th Annual Bonfires on Bent Street on Dec. 8 from 4-7 p.m.

This annual event is always held as close to winter solstice as possible (Dec. 22) — the shortest day and longest night of the year. Many cultures have long held a recognition of rebirth around this "midwinter" time involving holiday festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations.

"The winter solstice is the beginning of the light returning inside ourselves and in nature," said John Dunn House Shops owner and event organizer Polly Raye. "It's a renewal symbolized by the farolitos and fires."

See the spectacle of Aztec Dancers in mid-afternoon followed by entertainers Billy Archuleta and the Guadalupe Choir singing holiday songs. Later, the Taos Community Chorus Troubadours will harmonize. Caroling groups fill the air with song throughout the afternoon and evening. You can never have to much song fill the air.

Melding with the scent of burning piñon will be traditional food and hot beverages served outside at no charge. Chile will be offered at Mudd N Flood on Bent Street and posole near La Tierra Minerals at the John Dunn House Shops. All the merchants will have snacks and drinks inside. Tamales, chile, holiday cookies, hot cider and hot chocolate can be found outside Bent Street Café and Deli on John Dunn Way.

And while this event helps jump-start the gift-giving season in Taos and since the merchants offer a wide variety gifts (many locally made) — because a vibrant economy is important — Bonfires on Bent Street, however, isn't just about the almighty dollar.

"Dunn has always been a gathering place," Raye explained. "It's special in Taos at Christmas. [Bonfires on Bent Street] brings people out of their houses and outsiders to town. It has a traditional regional look — doesn't look like Chicago.”

Initially, the event sprang up as a thanks to John Dunn House Shops customers. Later, the Bent Street shops joined the party. Now Raye gets phone calls from people asking for the date of the event to plan a trip around it. She said attendance has increased every year.

"I think it has a very special energy," Raye added. "It started as a thanks to customers and it still is. But this is not to see how many dollars shops can make; it's about a sense of community and bringing people together. And for centuries it is tradition to have a day of thanksgiving for harvest."

And if your pet came with you on vacation, from noon to 4 p.m. you can bring your furry family member to the green space across from Op. Cit. Books in the John Dunn House Shops just steps from Bent Street — adorned in holiday garb or not — and for a small donation get a picture with St. Nick during Santa Paws. The yearly event benefits Taos’ Stray Hearts Animal Shelter.

Day 5

Celebrate the holidays in Questa, a short 30-minute drive north from Taos, Alumbra de Questa (Questa Light) features a variety of regional arts and crafts from paintings to pottery, and festive food such as tamales, biscochitos (Mexican Christmas cookies) and Mexican hot chocolate. In the European tradition, on Dec. 15 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the event will stay open until just after dark.

This is not just another market. It’s a unique craft market. It was created in 2015 to offer something different, a pretty outdoor setting and a focus on the Spanish frontier history of Questa. This being brought to life, so to speak, in the food choices onsite, a general history of isolated, rugged living and craft-making by necessity, for example. In addition to the wonderful items for sale at the Christmas market, the Questa public library hosts Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. They will be on hand for photos in between reading holiday stories to the kids.

This market started after new residents commented that the small mountain village would be a great place to host a Kris Kringle market. Of course, bratwurst, glühwein (mulled wine), liebkuchen cookies, etc., would not quite fly in Questa, so they worked to develop a Northern New Mexico version of a European Christmas market to feature an outdoor setting, traditional foods and local crafts and art. The evening lights are what’s spectacular, and in a Taos context, evocative of what is so thrilling at the Lighting Ledoux or Christmas Eve events at Taos Pueblo.

Alumbra de Questa is held in the town center at the intersection of State Roads 522 and 38.

Day 6

The community tradition called “Las Posadas” is a religious celebration and re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s journey for lodging as the impending birth of Christ nears. From Dec. 16 through 24, Las Posadas (meaning the “inns” or “shelters”) is performed over nine consecutive nights before Christmas. Las Posadas are held in different churches and parishes as well as select private homes.

The final posada is on Dec. 24 and concludes with a Midnight Mass at San Francisco de Asís Church located at 60 St. Francis Plaza in Ranchos de Taos. For more information or to participate, call St. Francis Church at (575) 751-0518.

Day 7

Experience entertainment yesteryear style with dinner and a live radio play Dec. 18 and 19 as Taos Onstage presents “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership, 20 ABC Mesa Road. Requires advanced registration. Admission for dinner and the show is $30. Tickets for the show only are $15, seats are limited. All seats are reserved — first come, first served. To order tickets or for more information visit or call (575) 224-4587.

Day 8

Check out the local artist showcase and authentic German-style holiday market featuring arts and crafts booths, hot glühwein, alpine cuisine and live music from Dec. 22-23 during the Holiday Market at the Taos Ski Valley Plaza from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Santa will be there on Dec. 22 to hear your gift wish list and for photos. Held in the afternoon until early evening. For exact times, visit

Day 9

Unchanged and unmatched in wonder and drama, Taos Pueblo holds the Procession of the Virgin Mary celebration where friends, relatives and visitors gather in the Pueblo Plaza at sundown around towering luminarias in anticipation of the annual Christmas Eve tradition.

Cellphones, cameras and recording devices are not allowed. Visit .

Day 10

Witness an ancient Native American ceremonial dance at the Taos Pueblo Plaza honoring depths of winter, as danced and drummed by the Red Willow people of Taos Pueblo on Christmas Day at a time to be determined. Visitors are invited to watch either the symbolic Deer or the dramatic Matachinas dance — one of which will be chosen by the Pueblo.

The meaning behind the Deer Dance is consecrated among the Pueblo people, and it's considered impolite to inquire about it. Photography and recording of any kind is strictly prohibited.

Matachinas is a dramatic dance whose origins are more Spanish than American Indian having originated in Spain during the 16th century. It is based on a drama that was written about the conversion of the Moors to Christianity. The central theme of the drama centers on a Moor who, after seeing the fervor of the Spanish in defense of their faith, converted to Catholicism.

“It is an allegorical drama of morality that represents the conflict between good and evil. As in other moral dramas, good triumphs over evil in the end,” wrote Oclides Quintana Tenorio for the Taos County Historical Society. “A century later, during the time of the Conquistadors in the New World, the missionaries made a great effort to convert the indigenous native population through the performance of the moral drama. The effort failed, due to the natives inability to understand or speak Spanish, so the missionaries transformed the drama to a dance without dialogue. The Aztecs accepted the dance, but changed the costumes and the types of dances to their customs. Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, represented the Moors. They added the role of La Malinche, the only female who is a representative of the Virgin Mary, the wife of Montezuma, the wife of Hernan Cortés or, even, the daughter of Montezuma. A young girl dressed in white takes the role of La Malinche and represents good, cleanliness and purity. The guide, El Monarca, wears a crown with a cross. A man or young boy takes the role of a bull. This character represents evil.

Ten to 14 Matachinas dancers stand in two parallel lines. El Monarca dances between the lines in a very complex style of movement with La Malinche following him.

The music for the dance is usually provided by one or more guitarists and violinists who play their instruments nonstop.

Outside of the lines, a pair of clowns attack the bull with their whips. At times, the clowns may go after and attack the people in the audience. Good finally triumphs over evil with the arrival of Cortés, the Christian, who conquers Montezuma, the pagan. The end of the dance comes when the bull falls dead and all the Matachinas dancers kneel.”

Again, cellphones, cameras and recording devices are not allowed. It is hoped that witnesses take away a positive, inspired feeling and a lasting memory in one's mind and heart as opposed to images. These celebrations are sacred to the Red Willow people of Taos Pueblo. Any chance of these celebrations being imitated or profited from, are guarded against.

For more information, call (575) 758-1028 of visit .

Day 11

Watch the trails of light as skiers with red, orange or blue flares in hand slither down slopes during the famous New Year’s Eve Torchlight Parades and Fireworks under the starry mountain skies. Anyone who has been at a Northern New Mexico ski resort on New Year's Eve has probably witnessed or heard about it. Combining the thrill of snow sports with the festivity of the season, these parades herald in the tides of grand skiing and good cheer. Firework displays follow, lighting the winter sky in celebration of the new year at Taos Ski Valley (kicks off with laser light show at 5:45 p.m.), Angel Fire (6 p.m.) and Red River (6 p.m.) on Dec. 31.

The birth of the torchlight parade is credited to former Taos Ski Valley volunteer Clifford Chase about 40 years ago. In 2013, Taos Ski Valley co-founder Ernie Blake’s daughter, Adriana Blake, told The Taos News about Chase's idea, "I don't think anyone would dispute that the original torchlight parade was his inspiration. Ernie liked the idea, but Clifford made it happen. He ran it until he couldn't ski anymore.”

For more information, visit , or .

Day 12

The traditional Turtle Dance celebration at Taos Pueblo marks the beginning of a new year. It is held on Jan. 1 in front of San Geronimo Chapel, the Taos Pueblo Church, at a time to be determined. Bare-chested men chant in the Tiwa language while softly dancing. The rhythmic sounds of a drum, turtle-shell rattles and sleigh bells fill the early morning air. In the hand of each dancer is a gourd rattle painted white with strands of evergreen wrapped around the handle. Tied to their legs are a single turtle shell and sleigh bells around each ankle. Their dress is white leggings and traditional kilts of Monks cloth. Headdresses are made of eagle, parrot and hawk feathers.

This day is also for the passing of the Lincoln Cane and Governor's Cane to the newly elected Pueblo governor and governing body for 2019.

The use of cellphones, cameras and recording devices are strictly prohibited. For more information, call (575) 758-1028 of visit .

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