- Historic Sites
Christmas In Santa Fe
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
All of Santa Fe’s frontier past is summed up in its one surviving seventeenth-century building, the unprepossessing adobe structure facing the plaza called the Palace of the Governors. “ Palace (as they term it),” Pike scoffed in his journal. The Spanish ruled from here, enslaving the Indians in the name of converting them, until 1680, when the Indians rose up and burned the rest of the town. During their twelve years in power before they were reconquered by the Spanish, the Indians transformed the palace into one of their multiple-dwelling pueblos. In 1821, the year Mexico declared independence from Spain, the palace became the territorial seat of a province of Mexico and the final destination for wagon trains that had just begun bringing calico and furs along the Santa Fe Trail. In 1846, shortly after Congress declared war on Mexico, the U.S. Army moved into the building. By 1909, three years before New Mexico was granted statehood, the palace had been turned into a museum of history. But the exhibits on view at the palace are almost incidental. The fortresslike structure of the building and the expressionless faces of the Indians who sit every day under the front portal selling jewelry tell the whole story.
My last night in town I joined in a Spanish tradition sponsored by the palace called Las Posadas, a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for a room in Bethlehem. Shortly before 7:00 P.M. a crowd gathered on the plaza, all of us bundled up in scarves and ski jackets, holding the candles we would light at the proper moment. The farolitos on every rooftop made the sky seem blacker, and it was just cold enough that 1 hoped the proceedings would begin on time. At precisely seven, we heard voices begin to sing, and members of a local Spanish church dressed as Mary, Joseph, and shepherds appeared from behind the palace to lead a procession around the square. “It’s a tradition that the Franciscans brought over to teach Indians about religion,” Thomas Chavez, the director of the Palace of the Governors, explained. “We used to have Mary on a donkey, but the donkey liked to bolt, so this year we did without him.”
Doorways are decorated with wreaths of chili peppers, and piñon smoke makes the air smell like cinnamon.
During the next hour the procession stopped at five prearranged stations along the plaza singing ¿ Quién nos da posada ? (“who will give us shelter?”). And at each stop an ebullient, horned, red-suited devil emerged from a second-story window onto the roof to send them away. The first time this happened, a few Santa Feans hissed softly under their breath. By the last time rousing boos greeted the devil. And when, at the final stop, Mary and Joseph were welcomed into the courtyard at the palace, cheers rang out, and we all squeezed through the gate behind them. Alone in a strange city at Christmastime, I, too, felt welcomed in.