Christmas in Santa Fe

A December visit renews the classic joys of the holidays
Gretchen Reynolds

Where to stay
La Fonda: The grande dame of the city's luxury hotels. Not cheap, but atmospheric, high-style, and home to the most vividly decorated hotel restaurant in the city: La Plazuela. From $169; 800/523-5002.

Pueblo Bonito Bed and Breakfast Inn: An easy three blocks' walk from the Plaza, it has 18 rooms, most in adobe casitas and all with private entrances and kiva fireplaces. Luxurious but relaxed. From $100, including full breakfast; 800/461-4599.

What Santa Fe offers holiday visitors and has given also to my small family, émigrés from the fast urban life, is a deep sense of abiding tradition. I vividly recall our first Christmas in Santa Fe, because I was about six months pregnant with our son at the time and seemed, somehow, particularly attuned to the beauties of the season. Probably because I was in no condition to hurry. With my pneumatic stomach, I waddled through the festivities. In Chicago, where we had lived until that summer, I would have been out of sync with the glitter, flash, rush, and sheer spectacle of a big-city Christmas (the lights of Michigan Avenue, the splashy animatronics window displays, the crowds!).

But as I lumbered slowly up Canyon Road that Christmas Eve on the traditional farolito walk, the season sang to me. The nighttime air was frosty and carried the sweet, sharp tang of burning piñon logs. My paternal grandmother had lived in New Mexico most of her life, and whenever we'd visited her from the Midwest, she'd had piñon fires burning for us.

I inhaled deeply and smiled. Around us, thousands of farolitos pinpricked the darkness, outlining the adobe buildings like sequins. Here and there, bonfires along the roadside created larger coronas. A murmuring, background sound of Christmas carols came from the people clustered around the bonfires. As we walked, lacy flakes of snow began to fall. My husband, Max, passed me a foam cup of hot apple cider from a cart outside of an art gallery.

I held it with one hand and draped the other gently over my swollen belly. "Merry Christmas, Junior," I whispered softly. "And many happy returns."

What surprised me about our next Christmas was that it was just as beguiling as this one, even though I was now carrying my extra weight, slumbering and sighing, in a sling across my chest.

Not much changes in the holiday celebrations here, which, nowadays, is no small thing. Take the decades-old farolito walk in the Historic District, a testament to the power of small lights to broach a greater darkness. It's also a not-half-bad time to practice caroling, since impromptu concerts break out up and down the avenue and participation is democratic, not limited to those who can, say, recall lyrics or carry a tune. You'll hear much wordless humming and feel a convivial, joshing, communal pleasure in the simple act of joining in.

For Santa Feans and visitors, the city answers two other vital seasonal needs: entertaining children during winter break and finding suitably creative Christmas presents. The Santa Fe Southern Railway's holiday trains should beguile most pre­adolescents: The four-hour rides to and from Lamy, through the lovely Galisteo Basin, include caroling and the Big Guy ― aka Santa ― himself. As for shopping, the city is strong in regional gift possibilities. Along the portal of the Palace of the Governors on the Plaza, Native American artisans display traditional arts and crafts: turquoise rings, earrings, and belt buckles. Or hit the wildly inventive Cruz Gallery: Give your teenage niece the sterling silver sea urchin earrings and happily watch her reassess your cool.

The city remains one of the nation's art capitals. Canyon Road has the greatest concentration of galleries, many showing traditional Western and Native American works. But a number of trendy, contemporary galleries have moved into the nearby Railyard District. The Railyard also is home to Site Santa Fe, a prestigious contemporary art showcase, which sells excellent art books.

Still, despite the gift-buying possibilities, the mood of Santa Fe this time of year is not primarily commercial but religious ― no small part of its charm, whatever your spiritual leanings. The Catholic Church's influence is pervasive and indelible, intertwined as it is with the city's Latino roots and its long, occasionally bloody history of Spanish missionary conquest. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at the grand Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is, I've been told by Catholic friends, one of the most thrilling, solemn, and achingly beautiful remembrances of the child whose birthday this is.

For myself, I find less formal sacraments during the holidays in the silence among the pines on the mountains above town. There, especially in deep snow, the quiet has a kind of presence. It is enveloping, forgiving, and divine.

In all of this ― the serenity of the mountains, the glories of Mass, the quiet, faithful ritual of lighting the farolitos each night ― there's something ineffable. Christmas in Santa Fe has the blood and bones of the earliest Christmases. I know some residents and visitors alike complain that the city's traditions are becoming clichéd. And there may be a few too many red-chile wreaths and farolitos about the place. (Some of them now are faux-litos, made of molded plastic and lit by electricity. Please help us discourage this by pointing and sneering. Thank you.) But that's quibbling about the trappings of the celebration, not the substance.

Christmas still has meaning here. Last year, as we walked up Canyon Road on Christmas Eve, my son, now 8, swiveled his head from side to side, trying to count all of the farolitos. He quit around 160 (which was in the first block). Then we paused, Max, some of our friends, and I, beside a bonfire to hum along with a group singing "O Holy Night." People's faces glowed in the guttering light of the fire. The air was brisk, the bonfire welcome, the harmony exquisitely bad, and the spirit of the night ascendant. It was a very merry Christmas, and I expect another this year.

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