Christmas in three cultures

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For newcomers, their first Christmas in New Mexico often catches them by surprise. The sacred holiday here always seems a bit foreign, or even exotic, and at the very least unfamiliar. The first Christmas of record occurred in 1598 with a midnight Mass at a hastily constructed church adjacent to the newly named San Juan Pueblo. Participants were Juan de Oñate and his colonists.

They and their successors introduced rituals and customs that traced back to old Spain. Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) and Navidad (Christmas Day) were at the center of an extended season honoring the birth of Christ.

Over the centuries, the holiday became deeply embedded in the local folk culture, developing along the way its own distinctive flavor. Public folk dramas, such as "Las Posadas" (The Lodgings) and "Los Pastores" (The Shepherds), were performed in villages and towns as far south as Mesilla to instruct and entertain citizens. Children went from house to house, knocking, then chanting in Spanish, "We are little angels from heaven. Give us Christmas treats or we'll break down your doors and windows." Homeowners happily gave them sweets and gifts, as we do today with Halloween trick-or-treaters. After a solemn Misa cel Gallo, literally Rooster Mass — that is, the Christmas midnight Mass after which worshippers retired to gatherings at their hearths to partake of a late night feast of posole, empanaditas (turnover meat pies), chicharrones (fried pork cracklings) biscochitos and perhaps a glass of native wine. On Christmas Day, one could usually find a performance of the Matachines dance drama, whose origins can be linked to medieval Spain. On its way to New Mexico, the Matachines added Indian elements from central Mexico, becoming a distinctly New World spectacle.

The Pueblo Indians at an uncertain date adopted the masked dance of the Matachines and blended it with their own ceremonial calendar. Performances were given at Christmas, but on other occasions also, such as the feast of Guadalupe (Dec. 12), which is still done at Jemez Pueblo.

The Pueblos, having Spanish Christianity imposed upon them in the colonial period, gradually absorbed the celebration of Christmas to fit their cultures, the Matachines being a part of that process. Winter animal dances, especially the Buffalo Dance, were included during the days between Dec. 25 and New Year's. To the merging of Hispanic and native customs of Christmas, the Anglo Americans would make their own contribution to that universal celebration. After the United States takeover of New Mexico in 1846, Christmas practices from the English-speaking East Coast crept in, although slowly. Military surgeon DeWitt C. Peters, visiting Santa Fe on Christmas 1855, wrote up what he saw.

The plaza on Nochebuena, like those throughout New Mexico, was lit by luminarias, small open fires emitting fragrant piñon smoke. (Farolitos, paper sack lanterns, would come later.) Throngs filled the square, awaiting the clamor of church bells signaling start of the Misa del Gallo.

Dr. Peters was delighted with the "strangeness" of it all. On Christmas morning, he encountered the seven or eight American ladies then living in the capital, who were observing the holiday as was customary back in the States. Together, they set out "tables of many eatables and drinkables" for all celebrants and guests who made the rounds downtown, Peters reported. As the 25th drew to a close, doors opened at the Exchange Hotel (called by locals, La Fonda) for a grand fandango. A newspaper account the following day announced that "the festive dance has lasted all night and ended in a blaze of glory."

Not until late into the territorial period did Christmas trees and Santa Claus with his reindeer and sleigh full of gifts find their niche within the pre-existing pattern of folk traditions. In our day, all have mingled together, while retaining their own distinctive identity. These variations set our Christmas holiday apart from the rest of the world.