This is a time of year for celebrating; for welcoming family and friends into our homes. The winter season in Taos is infused with tradition and enriched by the deep faith of its people. Glowing fires and pageantry all set amid mountainous beauty create an atmosphere of celebration.
There are many holidays celebrated in December around the world and in Taos. By knowing something about the different holidays, we can remain open and honor the beliefs of all people as we welcome them into our homes to share the joys of the season.
Ancient peoples celebrated the winter solstice as a time of returning light. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the shortest day of the year and the day that the hemisphere tilts farthest away from the sun. This year, winter solstice occurs Dec. 21. At Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, there is evidence that the ancestral Puebloans aligned petroglyphs with the sun so that there were distinct patterns of light created on the day of the winter solstice and other celestial events each year.
Many of our traditions, including evergreens and light come from the ancient celebrations. People rejoiced that the days had stopped growing shorter and they broke the darkness with symbols of life and light. The Feast of Juul was celebrated during pre-Christian times in Scandinavia and Northern Europe welcoming the return of the sun's warmth. The Juul or Yule Log that we include in our traditions today is thought to come from the bonfires of the Feast of Juul. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia in the time before the birth of Christ to honor Saturn as the god of the harvest. During this days-long celebration, wars and disputes ceased. There was feasting and gift-giving, which became part of Christian celebrations.
Christmas is observed as the birth of the baby Jesus and is among the holiest holidays for Christians. In Northern New Mexico, many traditions mark the time around Dec. 25, including attending mass, Los Pastores Christmas Play and making special foods such as tamales and biscochitos. Presents are exchanged in remembrance of the gifts that the Three Wise Men brought to the baby Jesus. At Taos Pueblo, the Native religion is joined with Christian beliefs to create a unique celebration on Christmas Eve with bonfires and a procession honoring the Virgin Mary.
For eight days, Jewish people gather to light a candle on the menorah to celebrate Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah). This year Hanukkah will be observed Dec. 12-20. The event commemorates the victory of the Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees who defeated the army of Greek king Antiochus and reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem. The people lit an oil lamp and even though it seemed there was only enough oil for a day, the lamp kept burning for eight days. For this reason, Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights. Special food and gift-giving have become associated with this time.
Kwanzaa honors African-American culture and was first celebrated in 1966. It was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor of Africana Studies at California State Long Beach. The holiday honors seven core beliefs including unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility. Kwanzaa is observed Dec. 26 - Jan. 1. Families celebrate with feasting, music, dance and poetry, along with time to reflect.
Aqui en Taos
In Taos, there is a long history of celebrating Christmas that was first brought by the Spanish Catholics who came to Northern New Mexico beginning in the mid-1500s.
El Salto rancher Erminio Martínez remembers that during his childhood the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were a time of prayer and families coming home to enjoy the food that had been raised all year on the farms and ranches. As a child, he went by buggy to help cut a Christmas tree. He recalls that often the presents under the tree were simple, like a new handmade shirt.
"There was always a lot of food to eat," said Amber Squires, who grew up in Taos and is a student at University of New Mexico-Taos. "My great-grandmother made a red chile stew with potatoes and beef. She never told anyone the recipe. Everyone tries to make it, but it never tastes the same."
Fellow Taoseña and student Allysa Ortiz remembers, "When I went to my grandmother's house, she always had a raging fire, so it was really warm and cozy."
Light and warmth are also central themes of the celebration of the solstice here. "Winter solstice is the marking of the return of the sun, so celebrations are all about coming out of the dark time of the year," said Nyna Matysiak of OptiMysm gift shop. "Days get longer and we now know that we have made it through the dark or dangerous time of the year. The lights we use to decorate are the reminder of the return of longer days, fires, candles and the burning of the yule log. This is a time of joy and celebration from ancient times. In Taos, we gather to honor the season and celebrate by playing music, eating food with friends and praying for peace in our community and the world."
In the Jewish community of Taos, Rabbi Eli Kaminetzky said, "We spread the light by organizing a toy drive for underserved children, so they feel the care and love of this special holiday time. Hanukkah is one of the most important Jewish celebrations in America. At this beautiful time of year we give gelts - gifts of coins and other presents. We light the menorah at the Taos Jewish Center in order to share the light with the broader community." On Dec. 19, there will be a celebration at the TCA; all are welcome.
Dr. Neal Friedman, who practices eccrinology with the Taos Medical Group and is the incoming president of the Taos Jewish Center, said, "Hanukkah is a festival, so we get together with family and friends every night for eight nights. We celebrate by lighting a candle on the menorah and singing prayers and Hanukkah songs. There are also special foods - always something fried in oil. In the U.S., the most common food is latkes made with potatoes, matzah and eggs." He said that each country has its own special food made in oil, including the Ojalere, which is a cheese-filled puff pastry made in Spain. There are gambling games with the dreidel, a four-sided top. The game is played with children for pennies.
An inviting home
A welcoming home is made up of feelings and fragrances that delight the senses. It doesn't cost much to bring some evergreens into the house and use candles as a reminder of light in the darkness. In the past, I hosted an annual holiday party in my house. I made sure to have the house lit with candles and the fireplace burning. The smells from the kitchen would include hot mulled cider on the stove and pastries being baked. Friends from all backgrounds and beliefs would come to celebrate friendship and relax in the pleasure of each other's company. I set up my grandmother's treasured nativity scene imported from Italy. Decorations like the nativity crèche connect us to our past and the traditions of our people.
Addie Lucero, manager of Red Willow Farm at Taos Pueblo said, "The best thing is to say hello and offer a nice greeting and a hug and invite people into your home. I always like to make sure my home is clean and warm and that there's some wonderful scents in the air like lavender or cinnamon. I enjoy homes that smell really nice, especially something natural. I love it when people greet me in the same fashion, with a nice hello and a very welcome invitation into their home."
In a world that often feels fractured, the holiday season is a time to celebrate the return of the light and the welcoming of all in peace.