There are many different traditions when it comes to celebrating the holidays, but the holiday celebrations on the Pueblos are unlike any other.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they began converting the Pueblo peoples to Catholicism. The missionaries’ attempts resulted in a merging of traditional feast days with Christian saints’ days. As a result, holiday celebrations on the Pueblos reflect the blend of Spanish culture and the Roman Catholic influence with indigenous Native American Indian religious ceremony.
The fusion of the two spiritual traditions can be observed in the festivities, which include both a traditional Christmas Eve Mass (and other Catholic traditions) and sacred dances. At Taos Pueblo, for instance, Vespers (evening) Mass is followed by a procession with the Virgin Mary to the plaza. The following morning (Christmas Day), the plaza is filled with onlookers of the Deer Dance ceremony, performed by the tribe’s sacred clowns. Other Pueblos celebrate with the Los Matachines Dance, which is a Moorish tradition brought to New Mexico by way of Spain that was used to teach elements of Christianity to the Pueblo people.
Most of the Pueblos celebrate the holidays with traditional processions, masses, bonfires (luminarias, in Northern New Mexico) and dances, yet no two Pueblo’s celebrations are exactly the same. Each Pueblo has a unique blend of cultures and traditions reflected in their way of celebrating Christmas:
- Old Acoma: Dances, luminarias and a Christmas festival at San Estevan del Rey Mission
- Nambe: Christmas Eve Mass followed by Buffalo, Deer and Antelope Dances
- San Felipe: Midnight mass followed by traditional dances
- Picuris: Christmas celebrations followed by Los Matachines
- Ohkay Owingeh (Formally San Juan Pueblo): Los Matachines and Pine Torch Procession
- San Ildefonso & Santa Clara: Christmas celebrations and traditional dances
- Tesuque: Midnight Mass and dances
To find out more about attending these celebrations, contact the Pueblos’ visitor’s centers.
If you plan to be present at Christmas Eve on the Pueblos, it is important to follow the established etiquette. You may be asked to pay an entrance or parking fee (or give a donation). During these occasions, the use of cell phones, cameras and all recording devices is strictly prohibited.
The dances are part of centuries-long traditions, not educational experiences for visitors. To show respect for the Pueblo cultural and religion, allow Pueblo members to observe and enjoy the ceremonies undisrupted by refraining from conversing with members about the events themselves and their cultural significance. Simply watch, listen and share the magic of a Christmas Eve unlike any other.
We may be able to use the word “Christmas” here since much of it is rooted in Catholic tradition. However, we need to tread lightly when it comes to the use of the term due to, for lack of a better word, political correctness. The last thing we need is to offend a large group of customers who do not celebrate Christmas, per se.