Home & Garden

Christmas tree traditions: looking to the past and the future

By Cindy Brown
For The Taos News
Posted 12/14/18

In addition to lighting the dark nights, decorating the Christmas tree is central to holiday celebrations here. Longtime Taoseños remember going by buggy or pickup truck with their families to cut a Christmas tree in the mountains.

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Home & Garden

Christmas tree traditions: looking to the past and the future

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We have entered the sacred season of light and celebration.

With Hanukkah behind us and the winter solstice and Christmas to come, we join people all over the world in traditional practices of decorating our homes and welcoming friends.

In Taos, our traditions have deep roots beginning with the Taos Pueblo people who have been here for more than 1,000 years. The Spanish and later Americans brought with them their own traditions and together they create a rich mix of beauty and meaning.

Traditions of Taos Pueblo people

The deep mysteries of their holiday observances are held close to the hearts of the people of Taos Pueblo. During the holiday season, the Pueblo invites visitors to respectfully join them for the Christmas Eve procession of the Virgin Mary and the Christmas Day dance, either the Deer or the Matachinas Dance.

The traditional Pueblo religion is a mix of both Catholic and Pueblo beliefs. On Christmas Eve, the San Geronimo Church is decorated with lights and evergreens. Beyond the church, towering bonfires burn, welcoming the season of celebration and warming all those who attend.

Taos Pueblo tourism director Ilona Spruce says, “It has been the custom to have luminarias and pine wreaths on the Pueblo during the Christmas Eve celebration.”

She adds that micaceous clay ornaments have become traditional decorations for trees at the Pueblo. “The main part of the season is having food and enjoying a bonfire outside with friends and family.” 

Spanish legacy

When Spanish explorers and settlers arrived beginning in 1540, they brought with them the traditions of the Catholic faith. Their descendants continue to observe these beliefs today honoring the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

The practice of setting little lights along a path is said to have originated in 1590 when Spanish explorer Gaspar Costaño de Sosa wrote in his journal that small bonfires lit by his companions had helped to guide a scout back to camp. According to the New Mexico Museum website, the bonfires were described as luminarias. In the North, bonfires are still referred to as luminarias while little lights set in bags are called farolitos. New Mexicans mark the paths to their homes and their churches with little fires as a symbol of lighting the way for the Holy Family in the search for shelter.

Christmas trees: cut your own

In addition to lighting the dark nights, decorating the Christmas tree is central to holiday celebrations here. Longtime Taoseños remember going by buggy or pickup truck with their families to cut a Christmas tree in the mountains.

Many Taos families continue this tradition today. “My all-time favorite memory and one I share with my own children is hunting for our perfect tree,” says native Taoseña Carolyn Jeantette Love. “When I was small, we would bundle up, and my Dad would load us in the truck. Off we went to the freezing forest to get our tree. Since I came back home to live in Taos nine years ago, I too have bundled up the boys and off we go. When we get home, we decorate the tree and the rest of the house. The boys take turns every year putting either a star or angel on top of the tree.”

Francisco Cortez also grew up in Taos and is now the wildlife biologist for the Carson National Forest. He remembers going with his grandfather to get trees when he was little.

His grandfather would cut evergreen trees on land in the Black Lake area and bring them back to Taos to set up a Christmas tree lot. “White fir was always my favorite,” says Cortez.

By cutting your own tree, you are helping the forest, Cortez explains. “If trees aren’t thinned and grow too close together, they are at risk for attack by budworms and other pests. Allowing people to cut trees is one part of an overall approach to the restoration of the forest.”

He adds that by removing evergreen trees from stands of aspens, we are preserving a natural firebreak created by aspens. A grove that contains all aspen trees also provides an oasis for wildlife by retaining moisture so important in our desert climate.

This year a special program called “Every Kid in a Park,” allows fourth graders to be eligible for a free Christmas tree permit. For more information visit everykidinapark.govor the Carson website at fs.usda.gov/carson/.

Real tree versus artificial

Which is better for the environment: a real tree or an artificial one? Although this argument seems to arise each year, the facts point to real trees as the best for the planet.

While artificial trees may seem to be eco-friendly because they can be reused for many years, the truth is that when greenhouse gas emissions and landfill space are measured, artificial trees have a more detrimental impact on the environment, according to research by National Geographic.

Artificial trees are made from polyvinyl chloride, which is derived from petroleum and can contain lead and other toxins. A vast majority of these trees are made in China where most electricity is generated by burning coal.

Real trees, whether grown on tree farms or in the forest help clean the air, purify groundwater, stabilize the soil and provide shelter for birds and mammals, according to the National Geographic article “Real Christmas Trees Save Water.”

The greenest real tree is the one that is bought or harvested locally and recycled, concluded a recent article in the New York Times. It appears that younger and more environmentally conscious consumers are increasingly embracing real trees.

In Taos, our long tradition of going into the forest to cut our Christmas trees is part of an environmentally friendly approach to the season. As we celebrate the magic of the holidays, we can honor ancient traditions and also consider the impacts of all of our actions to ensure a healthy future for our children and grandchildren.

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