As a time that is normally too busy to even think straight, the Christmas season, with its myriad demands, brings an added challenge to my life—one I would rather not face until Christmas Eve, if I had my druthers. However, denying the eventual arrival of the 25th of December only creates additional stresses that could have been prevented by taking the time, months before, to reflect on what this mid-winter holiday is all about, and what one is willing and not willing to do in the face of so many deeply ingrained religious, social, cultural and economic pressures.
In my youth, Christmas was not the problem that it is now. Back then, Christmas was about purchasing a seven-dollar pine tree at a local tree yard, bringing it home and decorating it with a single electrical string of small colored light bulbs, a little tinsel and a fabric angel with outspread wings to go at the very top. The illuminated tree in our living room, almost more than anything else, made Christmas the magical event that it was, even more than presents. In our modest, working-class household, we were all quite content to receive an orange or a toothbrush and give away a comb or a 25-cent can of shoeshine. Everyone was happy because happiness filled the air!
Other things that helped define the specialness of Christmas at little or no cost, were the school plays and caroling that took place in our parochial school and the obligatory two-hour midnight mass at our hundreds-of-years-old church, which tested everyone’s stamina for staying awake. Both of these events drove home in no uncertain terms that Christmas was about celebrating the birth of Christ and about offering devotion to a newborn babe who had been born in a stable in the Middle East nearly two thousand years before. Going up to the altar in a long, slow-moving line and kissing the tiny feet of an exquisite effigy of the baby Jesus held in the hands of a priest (and wiped clean after every kiss) was the epitome of this cult.
No doubt about it, Christmas was about the origins of Christianity, a religion which the Emperor Constantine had, in the year 330 A.D., decreed to be the state religion of the Holy Roman Empire. This decision had dire and momentous consequences for both Jews and pagans who inhabited this enormous empire that stretched from Western Europe to the Middle East and from the Mediterranean to the shores of Scandinavia. In time, the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch and other seafaring colonial European powers whose histories were intimately connected to the Holy Roman Empire were to export this religion and its beliefs to nearly every corner of the world, including northern New Mexico. It is for this reason that one finds the massive, ancient Catholic churches in the heart of Pueblo Indian villages so very far from this messianic religion’s point of origin near the Sea of Galilee in what was then the Roman province of Judea.
Nevertheless, my father observed an interesting custom that I have never forgotten and which, in my mind, is as much about the Christmas season as any other. Early in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, he would order his sons to chop and gather piles of long sticks of pitch pinewood. Not far from our house on a hill, he would carefully build a few small wooden towers—no more than four feet tall—by carefully crossing each stick over each other in a rectangular pattern.
The Ortiz family celebrated Christmas Eve in 2016 at their home on Acequia Madre in Santa Fe by singing carols. Eleanor Ortiz’s mother, Luisita, promised to burn luminarias each year in thanksgiving for her brother being safe after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Sometime during the evening, when darkness had descended over the land, he would bid us to come out from inside the house. He would set fire to the luminarias and we would gather round the bonfires with their leaping flames. As children, we romped around this scene like agile deer, only too happy to be outside and in an arena illuminated so dramatically. While the bonfires were still at their height, my father, without warning, would suddenly let out a series of coyote-like yelps that punctuated the evening with an otherworldly eeriness and mystery. He would eventually grow quiet, the fires would die out and we would all go inside for some posole laced with red chile. Since, on some level, all of this made sense to us, we never inquired about these practices. It is only now as an adult, that I speculate that the custom of the bonfires and animal howls may in fact go back to a time before Christianity when the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere was marked by the lighting of fires and by the imitation of the ways of animals (the sole winter food source), as is still done in Pueblo Indian communities of northern New Mexico.
In our contemporary world, fake gaudy Christmas trees go up in many of the big box stores just after Halloween, reminding people to begin setting aside money to purchase a new $1,400 refrigerator for the wife, a $675 table saw for the husband, or $700 computers for each of the children. Christmas music, whether you like it or not, is piped into many public spaces at a time when caroling is thought of as “quaint,” as many people no longer do it.
Robin Moore of Vallecitos, New Mexico, delivers a homemade Christmas present to a friend.
Reflective of our country’s huge economic divide are a few streets and homes that are turned into virtual winter wonderlands, with thousands of dollars worth of lights and other fixtures, in contrast to many others that do not even sport a simple farolito on the curbside or a candle at the window to guide a traveler home. References to corporate-serving Santa Clauses are ubiquitous, but there are few to the newborn babe and fewer still, to the winter solstice that may have originally spawned all of this extraordinary activity.
Flurries of greeting cards are put in the mail (or email) to everyone one knows, and invitations for people to gather together to celebrate Christmas are dispersed in so many directions that one needs a special calendar app just to keep track of them. People gather on Christmas Eve or morning to exchange presents, and then, just as quickly as Christmas comes, it goes, with hardly anyone mentioning it a few days later when New Year’s Day becomes the holiday upon which all energies are focused.
Even with minimal preparation, Christmas always sets my other duties back a couple of weeks. Not until the end of January, do I seem to fully recover from the avalanche of cards, wrapping paper, presents, sweets in every form, non-stop visits, and a public art scene populated by 10-foot-tall, black-and- white plastic blow-up snowmen and other such confabulations.
After much reflection, I have decided that, for me, future Christmases will just be about a few things, and nothing more. Among them will be attending my sister and brother-in-law’s annual family gathering. It will also be about honoring the solstice, honoring light (or “The Light”) and spreading goodwill to all by verbal greetings, a simple homemade card and a handcrafted gift with alternative wrapping. The latter, hopefully, I will have made back in June, amid much “peace on earth,” before commercial Christmas hysteria approaches and transforms our heartfelt need for observance of light in the midst of darkness into a spree of buying.
Alejandro Lopez is a native northern New Mexico writer, photographer and educator.