Alcalde, NM
Credit: Miguel Gandert

The University of New Mexico community has people who come from the far reaches of the world. UNM is also home to people whose roots run deep into the New Mexico soil. At this time of year, they leave the lights of Albuquerque and head home to Acoma, Ohkay Owingeh and Isleta; while others are drawn to Taos Pueblo, Santo Domingo or a site on the Navajo reservation.

Pueblo of Acoma
Christine Sims is an assistant professor in the Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies program in the College of Education. She also directs the American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training Center.

Within native communities, they blend the traditional with other observances of Christmas, Sims said. “Many traditions in the pueblo communities are not centered around Christmas per se, but rather traditional observances of seasonal change,” she said. The winter traditions “overlap, coincide or precede the actual celebration of Christmas,” she said.

At Acoma Pueblo, where Sims lives, “We celebrate Christmas Eve. The old village people recognize the celebration of baby Jesus as important. It was introduced by the Spanish Catholics, but over the centuries, the community added its own flavor to the celebration,” she said.

At midnight on Christmas Eve at Acoma, “The people bring offerings that are symbolic of blessings. They carry baskets with clay figurines that represent what whey hope for,” she said, adding that they take them to the altar at the mission church.

Dances are a big part of traditional celebrations at the pueblos. At Acoma, because of the size of its mission church, the dances occur inside. “The deer and buffalo dances reflect the importance of animal life to the indigenous community. The deer is important because the pueblo people relied on it for subsistence,” she said.

An early memory for Sims was waiting in the cold outside the church for the doors to open.  The people were wrapped in blankets and walked into the church en masse. “The church was lit by candles. There was no electricity, no heat, but it got warm with all the people,” she said, adding that a statue of baby Jesus was placed in the manger at the front of the church.

“Dancing took place in the mission church over several days. People brought their blankets and chairs,” she recalled. “The reverberation of the drum beats echoed through the pueblo."

Matachine dancers at Alcalde, N.M.

Santo Domingo
Paulita Aguilar is a research librarian in the University Libraries’ Indigenous Nations Library Program in University Libraries. She is from Santo Domingo Pueblo. She remembers her grandfather and uncles participating in the dances.  “The surprise is always to see what dances will be performed on the plaza.”

Aguilar especially remembers her grandfather and mother this time of year. “My mom and I got up early to make chile and posole. As soon as I heard the drums on the plaza, I would rush to see the first dances of the day. Few people would be there, and this was special for me because it seemed that the dancers were dancing just for me.  It was the perfect gift,” she said.

Now Aguilar and her sister prepare the traditional foods for any visitors who come by.

Isleta Pueblo
Ted Jojola is director of the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute (iD+Pi) in the School of Architecture and Planning. He is from Isleta Pueblo. Jojola remembers dances in the church at midnight. “It was a small dance – four to six couples. They would come in from back to front with one society coming in and one going out.” Among Isleta societies are medicine, town fathers, Laguna fathers and warriors.

“Luminarias and bonfires were all around the plaza. The whole community came together to congregate and talk.” His family was organized around his mother, who was a dancer; as well as his uncle, who was a clan leader.

Holiday food consists of turkey, ham, pies and cakes, potato salad, oven bread, fry bread and green chile.

Jojola also recalls the bags of goodies they received at the Day School – schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Older people looked forward to received fruits – oranges and apples,” he recalls. “We had school in the morning and performed in a play right before the holiday break,” he said, adding that they sang Silent Night in Tiwa.

Taos Pueblo
Amanda Montoya is the iD+Pi program manager. She is from Taos Pueblo. “On Christmas Eve they light bonfires around the village. The cedar fires are between three to 10 feet tall,” she said.

“They bring out the statue of the Virgin Mary from the church and hold a procession that attracts lots of people – tribal and not. There is always a lot of snow up there and it is freezing cold. The huge bonfires crash down and send sparks flying everywhere. People have small bonfires in their yards,” she said.

“They either dance the matachine dance or the deer dance on Christmas, it varies from year to year,” Montoya said.

Montoya used to receive bags of goodies from the Taos Day School as a child just before the students were let out on Christmas break.

Ohkay Owingeh/Cochiti/Kewa Pueblos
Pam Agoyo is director of American Indian Student Services and is also special assistant to the UNM president for American Indian Affairs. She is from Ohkay Owingeh, Cochiti and Kewa Pueblos also known as Santo Domingo).

“Christmas meant staying up all night – to go to the kiva and church for the dances. It also meant preparation and practice for Christmas Day,” Agoyo said. Her family made the rounds at various pueblos – Cochiti, San Felipe and Santo Domingo. “Traveling with my family from pueblo to pueblo is a favorite memory,” she said.

The day after Christmas is the one-day out of the year when they dance the turtle dance at Ohkay Owingeh, she said. “The turtle dance is performed only by men. It represents the somber, quiet time when the earth is hibernating before the hunting and planting season in spring,” she explained. She said that the dancers wear turtle shells that make a distinctive “strong, but quiet” sound.

Ohkay Owingeh, and many pueblo communities, select their new leadership at year’s end. “On the 29th at Cochiti, the men gather for the appointment of the new governor. If he is from your family, you host a feast and a dance takes place on New Year’s Day,” she said.

After eating lots of feast food the week of Christmas, and knowing that more feasting takes place the first week of the year, Agoyo said, “People are ready to “lay off” feast food and have hot dogs, pizza, or almost anything else between the two holidays.”

Navajo Nation
Michaela Shirley is a graduate student in the School of Architecture & Planning and is also an iD+Pi research assistant. She is from Kin Dah Lichii in Arizona. It is between Quemado and Window Rock, on the Navajo Reservation. Navajo people call themselves Diné

“I remember seeing my dad roll in the first snow to say young,” Shirley said, adding that others washed only their faces in the snow, but her dad wanted his whole body to stay young.

“We would find yarn to play string games and teach them to others. At school we would have string game contests,” she said. Storytelling is a part of the season, as well, and KTNN airs stories now on Sunday evening, she said, adding that they have old Navajo storytelling videos online.

Shoe games are played in teams with a yucca leaf as a counter. “Old boots are filled with dirt. One team places a stone in one. The other team guesses which boot it is in. People try to trick the other team into picking the wrong boot,” she said, adding that singing Navajo songs is part of the fun.

“Celebrations also take place at the Chapter House [meeting and administrative site]. There’s a potluck dinner with the traditional food, squash, steamed corn, mutton and kneeldown bread,” she said.

New Year’s Day and King’s Day
Many pueblos continue the celebrations after Christmas Day. Most have dancing – powwow type dancing at Isleta on January 6, King’s Day or Epiphany. The Turtle Dance is performed on New Year’s Day at Taos. Agoyo said that many pueblos have feasts for new tribal officers on January 6.

Sims said, “The whole calendar of events drives the spiritual beliefs and practices of indigenous people.”

For information about specific events and pueblos, visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.