The Spanish were the first to explore the American Southwest and they brought with them Catholic traditions including the celebration of Christmas. The Spanish mission was to acquire land for the crown and convert the Native Americans to Christianity. However, many of the native beliefs were absorbed into the holiday celebrations in the Southwest, as did the beliefs and traditions of the German and English immigrants who journeyed to the area once the territory belonged to the U.S. This melting pot of ethnic traditions and beliefs created some unique ways of celebrating Christmas.
For instance, farolitos or luminarias are frequently a part of holiday lighting displays. These simple tea-lights or candles inside paper bags or other translucent containers line the sidewalks to welcome guests into homes. In the 1800s, luminarias were small bonfires built along the roadside to commemorate Christ’s birth. They were used to guide people to Midnight Mass on the final night of Las Posadas.
Which brings us to yet another tradition that can involve entire communities … “Las Posadas.” This is a re-enactment of the journey of Mary and Joseph in search of an inn. The travelers wander the neighborhood knocking on doors and receiving the traditional response — aqui no hay posadas — here there is no [room at the] inn. Eventually, the travelers arrive at the house where the party is taking place (usually with an elaborate nativity scene set up) and are welcomed to the inn, and all the neighbors join in the celebration.
The native influence is also strong in many of the foods that are served during the holidays. Tamales have become a traditional Christmas food for many people in the Southwest. Made of masa (a starchy dough, often made from corn), tamales are steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper, generally a corn husk in the Southwest. The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales are filled with meats, cheese, vegetables and chilies, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be highly seasoned — very spicy!
Of course, the Southwest requires a considerable amount of creativity when decorating, particularly in the desert areas where pine trees are scarce. At considerable risk to life and limb, adventurous people add strings of colorful lights and other decorations to saguaro and ocotillo cactus to light up the night and brighten the holiday season.
The harsh terrain also lends itself to a complete rewrite of the Twelve Days of Christmas song, since maids a milking, lords a leaping, partridges and other such exotic things don’t exist here.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me…
Twelve luminarias twinkling,
Eleven peppers roasting,
Ten cacti prickling,
Nine rattlers rattling,
Eight Hopi hoping,
Seven saguaros soaring,
Six pueblos perching,
Five golden sunsets,
Four roadrunners running,
Three coyotes slinking,
Two mesas rising,
And a raven in a pinyon pine tree.