We know that New Mexico, in fact the entirety of the southwestern United States, was part of New Spain, and then after Independence in 1821, part of Mexico. The Spanish conquered, enslaved, and imposed Catholicism into all parts of the empire. Christmas celebrations in Oaxaca are an amalgam of pre-Hispanic and Catholic rituals. They are similar here in Taos, New Mexico, where each Christmas Eve, the Taos Pueblo holds a posada against the backdrop of history.
The posada here features a band of men shooting rifles (with blanks). Each crack of gunshot is startling. Following them in procession are others holding flaming logs, pointed skyward, that might be ten feet long. Following them is a covered palanquin (litter) holding the Virgin Mary dressed in white. Locals follow, beating drums, chanting. They are covered in woven serapes or Pendleton blankets wrapped tightly around their shoulders. It is cold this time of year in Northern New Mexico. The children have shell ankle bracelets that jingle when they move.
At first glance, one might assume that this is the ritual of Catholicism worldwide — the Christmas posada, or procession, depicting Mary and Joseph seeking shelter where she can give birth to Jesus. Here, too, the Virgin is dressed in white and carried in a palanquin. I have experienced this so many times in Teotitlan del Valle, where the posadas continue for nine nights, from December 16 to December 24. La Ultima Posada, on Christmas Eve, is the final procession to find the manger where Baby Jesus is born. In Teotitlan, the host family offers an elaborate celebration complete with all night feasting.
But, it is different in Taos pueblo. Christmas Eve, the men carrying rifles, and the attending bonfires are a re-enactment of a painful memory — the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, when the Spanish military entered the village. Many of the pueblo inhabitants — women, children, men, elderly and infants — sought shelter in the church, believing that they would not be harmed there. The Spanish burned the church, killing all inside. The ancient adobe bell tower is all that remains, a reminder of this oppressive history.
In this re-enactment, I see the men shooting rifles symbolizing the Spanish invaders. I believe the burning wood stanchions are a reminder of the destruction of the church. And, I interpret the burning 25-30 foot high pyres to represent the church as it burned to the ground. Those who have not read the history, come to visit for the spectacle. And, indeed, it is that!
On a cold Christmas Eve in Taos, New Mexico, the burning wood towers keep us warm as we huddle together in the 20 degree Fahrenheit evening chill, remembering, honoring those who stood here before us.
This is the day that darkness begins to turn toward light. May this holiday season and your new year be light-filled, with good health, cheer, contentment, and peace. Thank you for reading.