Santa Fe, New Mexico, honors tradition and rejoices with local flavors on Christmas Eve.
Credit: Douglas Merriam

During the Christmas season, Santa Fe, New Mexico, truly flaunts its nickname, “The City Different.”

The Santa Fe celebration remains distinctive in its respect for old traditions and hearty local food. v The devout Spanish founders of the 17th century, who named the city La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís (The Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi), left behind a legacy of Catholic and old-world traditions. The twin sides of this heritage come together in many ways at Christmastime. In a striking link to the past, Santa Feans reenact an ancient Christmas miracle play, Las Posadas, brought by the earliest settlers. A number of parish churches perform the drama, which reenacts Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay where Jesus could be born, for nine nights during the holiday season, and the Museum of New Mexico stages a performance on the city’s main plaza a few days before Christmas.

Citywide celebration

The festivities build as the sun sets on Christmas Eve―Noche Buena, the “Good Night,” as it’s known here―and continue until midnight with the arrival of Christmas Day. Residents deck their doors and outer walls with dried red chiles in wreaths and ristras (strings of dried chiles), intertwined with boughs of juniper, spruce, cedar, and pine. Indoors they light fragrant piñon (pine) logs in rounded kiva fireplaces to scent the evening air. As azure skies give way to sunset shades of purple and scarlet, thousands of people light farolitos, “little lanterns,” made with candles nestled in sand at the bottom of paper bags. A symbol of enduring faith to some, and a charming custom to everyone, the lanterns glow along streets, sidewalks, walls, adobe rooftops, even tree branches in neighborhoods around the city.

On Santa Fe’s historic east side, the fiesta of lights shines the brightest, attracting throngs of visitors to the adjoining streets of Canyon Road and Acequia Madre, which become pedestrian-only lanes for this special evening. Bundled-up families and groups of friends wander for blocks or even miles through the frigid night, buoyed by the lanterns, small bon-fires called luminarias, gifts of hot chocolate and cider provided by local residents and merchants, and spontaneous caroling. Some join parties in progress, while others investigate small side streets to find the most creative displays―perhaps farolitos riding a model train or attached to small hot-air balloons suspended in the air. As midnight approaches, many celebrants head to services at churches or to the large Noche Buena mass at St. Francis Cathedral.  

Santa Fe table

At Christmas parties and family dinners, the food is largely traditional fare, based on beloved ingredients such as chiles, corn, pork, and squash. New Mexico’s legendary green and red chiles bring Christmas color to the plate. Whether chopped fresh in the green form or dried and ground for the red, they can be equally hot because their piquancy depends on the variety of the pods and the growing conditions, not the hue. Sometimes the chiles are used as garnishes for extra flavor, but in other cases, as with enchiladas, they are simmered into sauces that become integral parts of the preparation. Locals often prefer the green or red variants with different dishes, but at any time of year, indecisive diners can order their food “Christmas” and get both styles together.

Posole sits at the center of the table at many Santa Fe holiday meals. This hominy-based stew has been a New Mexico favorite for centuries and is inexpensive to fix for a crowd. Native Americans taught early Spanish settlers their technique for drying and preserving corn as posole, and the Europeans, in turn, contributed the pork that rounds out the specialty’s robust character. The preparation often appears as a side dish throughout the year but is dressed up with more condiments for its role at Christmas.

Resembling little presents, cornhusk-wrapped tamales peak in popularity at Christmas, too. Because they are moderately labor intensive, people like to share the process of mixing and preparing the ingredients, wrapping the tamales, and then steaming them. Pork and red chile is the classic filling, but many cooks use other types of stuffing, as well, such as green chile, corn, and zucchini.

Carne Adovada, succulent pork cubes slow-cooked in a sauce of toasted, coarse-ground red chiles, generally is the spiciest dish on the table. You can cool down with an Ensalada de Noche Buena, a bright salad of citrus, crunchy jicama, and jewel-toned pomegranate seeds, or with Natillas, a custard-based dessert topped with meringue. And, of course, toast the holidays with a sparkling cocktail and a rousing “Feliz Navidad.”