A pilgrimage to the Taos Pueblo for a traditional ceremony gives author Rivvy Neshama a new understanding of Christmas.
One year, after family plans fell through, John and I were destined to be home alone for Christmas. We were feeling quite dreary—until we decided to go to Taos, the most magical place we know. We’d never been there in winter but had heard about a Christmas Eve procession at the Taos Pueblo, the ancient village and home of the Taos Indians.
Sometimes when we’ve visited reservations, I’ve left in sadness, feeling the sorrow of the people, their history, their land. But when we’ve attended their festivals—the Corn Dance, the Deer Dance—I’ve seen pride, spirit, and the power of tradition.
It’s a long drive to Taos from Boulder, about five hours. We played tapes of Robert Mirabal most of the way. He’s a flutist and singer who grew up in the Pueblo, and his songs blend native music with a sound called tribal rock. As we crossed the border leaving Colorado, the drumming on the tape grew mysteriously louder: welcome to New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment.”
On Christmas Eve, we parked at the edge of the reservation and followed hundreds of people—Spanish, Native, and Anglo—on a dirt road to the village. It was a moonless, wintry night, and most folks were walking briskly to stay warm. When we reached the open space in front of the chapel, next to 1,000-year-old dwellings made from mud and straw, we fell into clusters and a circle of sorts, and a buzz of excitement began to grow.
Church bells rang, and as if on cue, huge bonfires were lit, one by one, filling the black sky with golden flames and the sweet smell of burning pine. In the fires’ glow, I saw families and elders, all chatting, laughing, and smiling hellos. And there, right across from me, was Robert Mirabal! He looked just like the picture on the front of his tape—long black hair, leather boots—and he held a young child wrapped warmly in his arms. Then the fire shot up around us, blowing soot in my face, and I moved aside but stayed close enough to still feel its heat. I had never seen so many fires, nor any this high. It was almost frightening, yet exciting. It felt timeless and primal.
Just as the excitement was reaching its peak, from the courtyard of the church the procession began: a painted wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, dressed in bridal white, was carried on a dais for all to see. Around and around the church folks carried her, slowly and reverently, while men behind them beat hand drums and chanted native chants. Next came the tribal dancers in headdresses and masks. Illuminated by the blazing fires, they stamped their feet to the droning rhythm played by musicians who followed. Lastly, I think, the carolers appeared, singing in Spanish and their native tongue of Tiwa.
There is no electricity within the village walls, but the flames from the fires leapt high in the darkness as we huddled together, like a family, in the cold.
“It’s about the sun returning,” I heard someone say. “It gives us light for the new year,” said another. It’s Christmas, it’s native, it’s solstice, it’s magic.
Looking back, it all feels like something I dreamed. But it happens every Christmas, and one year we were there.
Excerpted from Recipes for a Sacred Life: True Stories and a Few Miracles, by Rivvy Neshama. Divine Arts, 2013. Reprinted with permission.