We are accustomed to thinking of gifts as coming from people but, in fact, it is nature that continuously gives us our greatest gifts and, usually, without charging a single penny. Among the most important gifts nature gives us this time of year—gifts that we can pass on to others—are the gifts of light, warmth and fire. In northern New Mexico, amid the rawness of a tough winter climate, those who came before us revered fire and kept fires burning in their hearths and hearts in many forms, be it a hot cup of coffee, a hot meal or a place next to a roaring fire extended to friends and strangers alike.
At Taos Pueblo, as indeed in many of the pueblos, this custom is still kept alive by those who remember that joy in life comes from sharing with others that which we most relish ourselves.
In the summertime, fire is not what it is in the winter. In the summer, a fire may be what we decide to cook with outside on an outing or for a barbecue. Or it may be used to eliminate a pile of weeds that has accumulated in the yard. Fire may be what we use to transform the fragile walls of our uncooked pottery into vessels that, as if by magic, mimic stone and hold water. If we are not so lucky in the summer, whether because of human error or carelessness or as a result of prolonged drought and global warming, the words “wall” and “fire” may take on a different meaning, and we might find ourselves concerned about a wall of fire headed toward our communities.
In the winter, of course, fire both warms and illuminates. As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, bonfires mitigate the darkness, so that people can remain outside past five o’clock, as they do during the great Christmas processions at Ohkay Owingeh and Taos pueblos. In Nuevo Mexicano communities throughout northern New Mexico, la gente have traditionally lit farolitos to line the pathways leading from their homes to local shrines and churches, so the Christ child can find his way.
In recent years, this tradition has been taken up by multitudes of people who have moved here from other places. The spectacle of farolito-lined homes and galleries on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road is now an enormous attraction for visitors and residents alike. Those who originated this humble custom could scarcely have imagined that a brown paper sack partly filled with sand to hold a lit candle in place would be put to the service of so much holiday camaraderie and commercial fanfare.
It could be, though, that the most significant use of winter fires is for cooking meals, warming up our abodes and inviting into our homes and to our tables not only our family and friends but also those who are sick or alone or who have no home or food.
It is for these times that we bring out the candles, light them at the table, and settle in for a lengthy conversation in which we explore the meaning of this enigma that we call life and the hardships, victories and joys it deals out to us. We may offer up a toast of any kind of drink. Just remember that, in toasting, we need to hold the glass prism just so, so that the candlelight or the tongues of the roaring fire in the hearth recall the sun in all its splendor. This is the real source of fire, which, whether we know it or not, is already making plans to return to fully illuminate and quicken to life all of the northern hemisphere, sometime near the middle of March. Here’s to the fuego in us all!