No matter what the holiday, they are always more festive if you’re with family and friends, so we left northern California and headed to New Mexico to spend some time with Eric’s brother and sister-in-law. Teresa is currently an interpreter at Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec, NM, so they drove south and we all met on Christmas Eve at Acoma Pueblo for the festivities there. The residents of Acoma Pueblo hold a large Christmas Eve celebration at the Sky City Cultural Center, and line the road to the Pueblo with 2,000 luminaries. The Acoma, like so many other natives of the American southwest, were subjugated by the Spanish for a time and Catholicism became intertwined with traditional Acoma beliefs and customs. Today the community celebration is an interesting mix of Acoma and Catholic tradition, and they graciously allow outsiders to view the festivities. The drive along the luminary-lined road to the Cultural Center under the Christmas full moon was gorgeous, and we spent some time taking in the exhibits and watching tribal dancers. At midnight we were driven to the village itself, located on a mesa top situated 360′ above the valley floor, and walked across the rocky mesa top to the San Estevan del Rey Mission church. Built between 1630 and 1641, the Mission is one of the finest examples of Spanish mission churches and is both on the National Register of Historic Landmarks and is a National Trust Historic Site. In spite of this, I could find remarkably little info on the Mission and few photographs. This is in part due to the restrictions the Acoma people place on photography in the village: they do not allow photos of the interior of the Mission nor do they allow entry into or photographs of the cemetery which is directly in front of the building. This severely limits photo opportunities, and some of the best I found are on this travel blog. Go there now so you’ll have a mental picture of the adobe facade with its beautiful bell towers. I’ll wait. Ready?
We walk through the pueblo under a full moon so bright that it made the midnight sky appear dusky blue, and the 400 year-old Mission bells are ringing out in celebration of the birth of Christ. As we round the corner to the front of the Mission, a bonfire right outside the door welcomes us with light and warmth and someone is playing traditional music on a flute. We enter the candle-lit space (there is no electricity to the mesa-top) and move to the sides to make way for the Acoma drummers and dancers following us. The drumming and chanting mingles with the hymn from the choir loft above us. Blankets in traditional colors and patterns drape the choir loft railing in splashes of brightness. The Mission is only 40′ wide and there are no pews. Its packed earthen floor has been worn down in the center from the passage of so many feet. The Ponderosa pine beams and planks that form the soaring ceiling glow warmly in the candlelight. Behind the altar, the mostly red and white reredos is decorated with both traditional Acoma and traditional Catholic symbols, and is adorned with fragrant greenery for Christmas. Cleansing sage is burning and smells wonderful. The choir stops singing, leaving only the drums and chanting to fill the space. We watch and listen quietly as dancers in ceremonial dress move gracefully through the space. Over their heads through the open doors I can see the sparks from the bonfire swirling through the deep blue sky. As one group of dancers tires, they exit the church and another group takes their place. Meanwhile, the faithful hold candles and join the slow procession to the altar, some carrying offerings to St. Steven. The celebration is a strange mix of religion and cultural tradition, but the space is spiritual and reverent and somehow it all works. After about ninety minutes, the last group of dancers leaves the church and we’re driven back down the mesa to make our way home. We wish each other a Merry Christmas as we head off to our beds, while visions of the mesa dance in our heads.
Christmas dawns cold and bright in the desert. At least we’re pretty sure it did, since we all slept in after our 2:30 AM bedtime! We had a wonderful Christmas day and the RVs were full of the smells of Christmas dinner: turkey and all the trimmings. A few intermittent snow showers and some holiday eggnog just made the day more festive. Snow began to fall in earnest on the 26th as we headed back to Aztec, where we stayed through the New Year. We were camped along the bank of the Animus River where we could watch geese, ducks, and mule deer and we spent several afternoons exploring the back roads around Aztec. It was wonderful just to visit with Sterling and Teresa, but we also walked down to Aztec Ruins National Monument for a couple of walks in the snow. The ruins are fascinating, even if they were mis-named by the Spanish (who credited them to “Aztecs” and the name stuck). You can walk into the only fully restored Great Kiva in the U.S. and on a self-guided walking tour you can enter some of the intact rooms of the 3-story pueblo. It’s a little spooky to think that the wooden ceiling over your head is the original 900-year-old construction! The visitor’s center has some great displays and a nice film about the ruin – it’s well worth a visit. We would have loved to stay longer, but cold temperatures and the threat of another major snowstorm convinced us it was time to head further south.