A Heart-Warming New Mexico Christmas at Taos Pueblo New Mexico

There’s only one place on earth where you’ll experience a Christmas that involves crackling bonfires, traditional Native dances and the unexpected sound of rifle shots: Taos Pueblo New Mexico Christmas!

Summary

In this article about Taos Pueblo New Mexico, you’ll learn about the extraordinary Christmas experience. Here are the high points:

1.) Christmas Eve Processional

After Christmas Eve Mass, Taos Puebloans wielding rifles burst open the chapel doors and fire their guns to announce the arrival of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus.

Bonfires light the plaza as the Virgin, carried on a platform, appears to the crowd.

2.) Christmas Day Dances

Only weeks before Christmas, the Taos Tribal Council announces which of two dances will take place on Christmas Day.

A. ) The Matachines Dance or

B.) The Deer Dance.

We’ll describe both these dances, one with its roots in New Mexico’s Hispanic heritage and the other in the traditional Native religion. 

Finally, you’ll get tips on what to wear and what to eat after this New Mexico Christmas spiritual adventure.

Taos Pueblo Tourism hosted my visit and gave me permission as a journalist to take photos.

Pinterest graphic with text "New Mexico Christmas" and "Taos Pueblo New Mexico" over black and white photo of mission church with crosses and graphic embellished with graphics of colorful Christmas lights strung together

The freezing air moving down from snow-capped mountains pinches your nose as you walk toward Taos Pueblo on Christmas Eve. Moving closer to the crowd gathered around the brown adobe chapel, you hear people speaking hushed Spanish, French and German.

Christmastime ceremonials danced at Taos Pueblo—the oldest continuously inhabited community in the USA—draw people from all over the world. The pitch-wood bonfires smell like incense as you stand on tiptoes to look over the crowd for the first sight of the processional. Some three to four stories high, huge bonfires are stacked all over the large plaza.

The Oldest Continuously Inhabited Community in the USA Celebrates Christmas

earth-colored three story building with dark windows and doorways are covered in snow with the beautiful Sangre de Christo Mountains in the background
Taos Pueblo New Mexico in snow | Courtesy of Taos Pueblo Facebook page

You’ve come to the mountain town of Taos, New Mexico, to experience ceremonial dances at San Geronimo Chapel. You’re finally standing on the plaza with hundreds of other people. “Funny, they don’t feel like strangers. I feel a sense of community here,” you might note.

The Procession of the Virgin After Christmas Eve Mass

black and white photo of earth colored chaple with two bell towers framing dark door and 3 crosses on top
San Geronimo Chapel at Taos Pueblo | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Every Christmas Eve, the Procession of the Virgin begins right after the 5 p.m. Mass at San Geronimo Chapel. 

Dark falls suddenly on the short winter evening. Sparks from the tall fires sweep eerily across adobe buildings where electricity is taboo. Out of the chapel burst Puebloan men carrying torches and firing high-powered rifles.

The crack of rifle fire startles with the announcement of the procession.

Next, the statue of the Virgin Mary appears high on a pallet under a white cloth canopy; the cloth seems to glow mystically, reflecting the tall flames.

“The building-size bonfires give off dark smoke—it’s a primitive kind of atmosphere, and suddenly you feel like you are not in the twenty-first century anymore,” explained Rick Romancito. “It is all very simple. First, men fire guns ahead of the procession to ward off bad influence. Then, the statue comes behind them, followed by a group of dancers and singers.

“If the Matachines Dance is planned for the next day, then Matachines dancers follow the procession; if not, people close to the church doors follow behind the procession and sing hymns. And that’s it,” said Romancito, then editor of Tempo, Taos’ arts and entertainment magazine. This is one of the best things to do for Christmas in New Mexico.

Christmas New Mexico in the Heart of Real America

“You hear the sound of drumming and singing in Tiwa and Spanish. People are moving through the plaza lit by the fires, and you see shadows of all these figures. It’s no big production, unlike Disneyland, but you feel as if you’re not in America anymore. But you are in the heart of the real America, Native America,” he summarized the Christmas New Mexico traditions.

Tomacita Tedesco, who has spent all Christmases except one at the Pueblo, suggested, “Dress warm and bring a flashlight. For the Procession of the Virgin, get there before the sun goes down—the earlier, the better for parking.”

“The bonfires light up around dusk. Each family puts up their own bonfire. Visitors may join a family group at their fire. There are so many people and so many fires that the plaza is filled,” said the young mother.

Then, on Christmas Day, there is a second ceremonial chosen by tribal elders only a few short weeks before Christmas. 

Second Ceremonial on Christmas Day: The Matachines Dance or Deer Dance

line drawing of two women dnacers followed by four men dancers with deer horns and short sticks that look like deer legs
Zuni Deer Dance (1895) | Zuni and Taos are two of the nineteen New Mexico Pueblos | Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology image

The Taos Tribal Council selects either the Matachines Dance, a ceremonial handed down from the Spanish who settled this country in the 1600s, or the Deer Dance of traditional native religions.

The Matachines Dance

“The Matachines Dance filtered down through the Moors and Spain as a method to engage native people and convert them to Christianity. The folk drama has played out for over 400 years here,” described Romancito. “Performed throughout the Southwest, it starts mid-morning and goes through the afternoon.”

The Deer Dance

The Deer Dance, part of the Native religion, is enacted by Taos Pueblo tribal members in the early to midafternoon. Because of its religious significance, photography and recordings are strictly forbidden. 

It’s also good for visitors to know that the dance is “meant to be experienced without speculation, scrutiny or explanation,” so refrain from asking questions. Also, don’t applaud after the dance ends. The dance is not a performance, it’s a religious practice. So, just as you would not applaud at the end of a sermon or homily at your church, don’t clap at the end of a Pueblo dance.

Romancito advised, “Leave pets at home and keep track of your kids. As with all Pueblo ceremonials, these are not theme park rides — they’re not put on for the benefit of tourists. We have lived here for 100s of years, so be respectful in that regard.”

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Tips for Visiting Taos Pueblo New Mexico at Christmas Time

Tomacita Tedesco, who has spent all Christmases except one at the Pueblo, suggested, “Dress warm and bring a flashlight. For the Procession of the Virgin, get there before the sun goes down—the earlier, the better for parking.”

“The bonfires light up around dusk. Each family puts up their own bonfire. Visitors may join a family group at their fire. There are so many people and so many fires that the plaza is filled,” said the young mother.

What To Do After the Processional?

You’re happy for warm socks as you get in your vehicle and follow the festivities to the Historic Taos Inn in the heart of Taos’ arts district. The inn’s two-and-a-half-story lobby—deemed ‘the living room of Taos’ by locals—is illuminated with 10,000 Christmas lights.

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A Real New Mexico Christmas at Historic Taos Inn

tall Christmas tree decorated in many tiny white lights rises up two stories in hotel lobby at New Mexico Christmas event
New Mexico Christmas decorations illuminate the Historic Taos Inn lobby

Greeted by the sounds of live Christmas music, you rub elbows with locals. Kyle Martinez, Taos Pueblo Tourism coordinator at the time, explained, “We work with the Taos Inn because we don’t have lodging here at the Pueblo.”

You enjoy Christmas dinner at the inn’s famous Doc Martin’s Restaurant with native-inspired dishes such as Doc’s Chile Rellenos – blue-corn-battered chiles, pepitas (squash seeds) and goat cheese smothered with traditional green chile; grilled rattlesnake-rabbit sausage; red wine braised buffalo short ribs with horseradish mashers or a simple elk burger. The chiles and produce are sourced from gardens at Taos Pueblo.

RELATED: New Mexico Hatch Chiles Recipes ¡que aproveche!

Christmas Dinner at Doc Martin's Restaurant at Historic Taos Inn

Doc’s Chile Rellenos – blue-corn-battered Anaheim chiles, pepitas (squash seeds) and goat cheese | Courtesy photo

“Southwest cuisine is inspired by all the cultures in the area,” detailed Romancito. “Historically speaking, beans, corn, squash, and native meats like venison and rabbit are native foods. You’ll find hints of these foods in almost every restaurant in Taos.”

Other New Mexico Christmas food traditions include tamales, empanaditas and bizcochito cookies.

Conclusion: New Mexico Christmas at Taos Pueblo New Mexico

We hope you enjoyed this story about New Mexico Christmas in Taos Pueblo New Mexico! If you did, please share it with your friends by using the buttons below!

Of course, you’ll want to make reservations at Taos Inn ASAP since it’s a popular getaway for Christmas in New Mexico!

Taos Pueblo Tourism Department, 575-758-1028, www.taospueblo.com

This story written by me originally appeared in Native Peoples magazine and was reprinted in the Pinewood News in December 2012.

READ ALSO: Santa Fe New Mexico: the Perfect 3-Day Getaway

Q&A:

What should I wear when visiting Taos Pueblo?

Wear comfortable shoes or boots as you will be walking. In the winter, bring warm coats, hats and gloves. Dress in warm layers and pray for snow! In summer months, a light jacket is a good idea, sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat are good things to wear at Taos Pueblo.

What are the hours for Taos Pueblo?

Monday – Saturday 8:00am-4:30pm

Sunday 8:30am-4:30pm

*except when tribal rituals require closing the Pueblo

The Pueblo closes for about 10 weeks, from late winter to early spring.

Why shouldn't I wade in the river at Taos Pueblo?

You shouldn’t wade in the river at Taos Pueblo New Mexico because it is Taos Pueblo’s sole source of drinking water.

Is Taos Pueblo worth visiting?

Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is worth visiting especially if you love Indigenous Native culture or history. You can talk with shop owners and learn about life in the Pueblo, the oldest continually inhabited city in the US!

Table of Contents

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Hi, I’m Stacey

UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel is a travel blog focused on immersive travel that highlights food, wine and the spirituality of place. I also occasionally write about life as a Camino de Santiago pilgrim. I hope you enjoy what I post here. Feel free to leave comments! Read more…

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