Holiday Symbols: An Introduction to the Holidays in Santa Fe

Date December 7, 2012 at 3:21 PM

Publication Santa Fe Sun Monthly

Categories Home & Garden Outdoors & Recreation

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Matachine Dancers

Every Christmas Eve, the place to be is at the Ohkay Owingeh, formerly known as San Juan Pueblo, north of Santa Fe, to view and be dazzled by the Matachine Dancers and celebration. They are spectacular in their multi-colored silk capes and streaming ribbons, led by a blanket-draped figure holding a cross. The masks, as you see in this photo, are so elaborate, you question how the dancer can even stand erect let alone dance vigorously.

Of medieval Hispanic-Moorish origin, the dance was brought to Central America by the Spaniards and then in 1598, crossed the Rio Grande into New Mexico. Introduced to the Pueblo Indians by Franciscan friars as a counter to the devilish, heathen dances of the Indians it was quickly adopted by the Pueblos as a integral part of their rituals. 

The Spanish word matchin means a sword dancer in a fantastic costume, is known in many Indian Tribes as the “Dance of the Moors and Christians”. The Moors were driven out of Spain in 1492 and the missionaries introduced the dance to show superiority of the Christians. Although the dancers reach for a deeper religious purpose their most basic symbol of the dance is good versus evil, with good prevailing.

Storyteller Dolls as a Santa

This particular clay figurine is made by the Pueblo people of New Mexico. Historically if we search records, the contemporary storyteller was made by Helen Cordero of the Cochiti Pueblo back in 1964 in honor of her grandfather, who was the tribal storyteller.

This oral tradition of telling stories is extremely important to the Native American cultures. The stories are actually passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth from master to apprentice. Storytelling even today is often used as a teaching tool to instill the younger generation with traditional values and belief.

Basically, the figure of a storyteller is a man or a woman and is usually represented with an open mouth. It is surrounded by figures of children and other things, who represent those who are listening to the storyteller. The motif is based on the traditional “singing mother” motif which depicts a woman with her mouth open holding one or two children.

In this representation of a Storyteller Santa pictured here, the Jemez Pueblo designer shows the Santa with any number of children along with a few gifts. This particular Santa came out of a collector’s inventory and probably would be valued somewhere between $350 and $500. Charming and so desirable.

Red Cardinals - Red Houses

Nothing celebrates the holiday season more vibrantly than a visit of a bright red cardinal hanging out in your backyard birdfeeder. Viewed especially in all parts of the Rocky Mountains and significantly in New Mexico, this black-masked bird features a crown-crest on its head and produces an exceptional sight, particularly when the songbird perches on a fresh dusting of snow.

The male of the species is spectacular with a bright red color. Whereas the female are rather dull with a brown olive color and only a faint red color appears on her wings and tail. 

What’s interesting about these northern songbirds is that many times, they exist within a one-mile perimeter of where they were born. What is even more enchanting is the cardinal’s song to be heard on a wintry day. It sounds like “cheer, cheer, cheer” or a short “clink” sound.

To quote “For the Birds” pictured here, be sure to provide high energy foods for these red cardinal beauties and be sure your bath and open water supply have a de-icer installed for these cold, wintry days.

Farolitos & Luminarios

Christmas in Santa Fe is practically synonymous with lights, hundreds of thousands of them, flickering from rooftops and lining walkways. Called farolitos, the “little lanterns" are made from ordinary brown paper bags, sand and candles. These glowing holidays decorations cast a magical glow over the ancient city.

Farolitos are not to be confused with luminarias, little bonfires that symbolically light the way for the coming of the Christ Child. According to legend, this custom dates back to three shepherds who welcomed the birth of Jesus. Bonfires were certainly common during biblical times as a practical way for shepherds to ward off the cold and protect their flocks of sheep from wolves and thieves.

The first recorded connection of luminarias with a Christmas Eve celebration in the New World occurred in 1536 when Mexican Indians were encouraged by Franciscan monks to light bonfires in honor of the birth of Christ. The custom was later brought to New Mexico by Spanish colonists. 

The idea for farolitos possibly came from delicate paper lanterns made in China and imported to Mexico. Not until cheap brown paper bags became available in late 1800, however, was the custom adopted in Santa Fe. Now Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas in Santa Fe without the romantic holiday atmosphere they provide.

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