Christmas In Santa Fe

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One cold January a few years ago, the daughter of a French friend of mine wrote that she was coming to America. She would, of course, visit New York, and then she hoped to see some of the rest of the country, possibly les Grands Lacs. It was not hard to imagine a young tourist unfolding a map of the United States and settling on Rochester or Duluth as the kind of lakeside resort you might enjoy poking around in the off-season. What was hard was thinking where to send her instead. Miami? Los Angeles? Now I wouldn’t hesitate. I’d send her to Santa Fe.

I visited for the first time last December, approaching the city as most travelers do, on a shuttle bus from Albuquerque Airport sixty miles to the south. Santa Fe has always been isolated. When Spanish colonists founded the city in 1610 as part of their campaign to find gold and save souls in the New World, they were twelve hundred miles from Mexico City and five thousand miles from Madrid. Even by 1879, when the railroad approached, residents were so unenthusiastic about it that the Atchison, Topeka laid the tracks to Albuquerque instead. Then, as now, travelers bound for Santa Fe had to make the last leg of the journey by coach.

Yet once the bus pulls into the center of town, any inconvenience is forgotten. Santa Fe turns out to be an ideal destination. It is arranged, as all towns should be, around a grassy central square. It’s small enough so you can walk everywhere. It has a handful of fine museums, including the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of International Folk Art. Watching protectively over all is a cathedral, the story of which is told in a classic American novel you can read during your stay, Willa Gather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. And perhaps most important for Easterners and Europeans, Indians live there.

But most impressive to me was the fabric of the city itself. Virtually all of Santa Fe is built of adobe, mud bricks that are fired and then covered with a smooth outer layer. Not all of the buildings are old; but old and new blend together, and the rich brown tone of the adobe sets off any color put against it. Even a yellow no-parking stripe painted on a curbstone looked as if an artist had placed it there.

It was Georgia O’Keeffe and other painters (John Sloan, Robert Henri, Ernest Blumenschein, and John Marin all worked in Santa Fe or in nearby Taos) who taught us to see beauty in these massive adobe shapes. The first Anglos to describe Santa Fe style didn’t think much of it. When the explorer Zebulon Pike saw the city in 1807, it reminded him of “a fleet of the flat-bottomed boats . . . descending the Ohio River”; he particularly remarked on the “miserable appearance of the houses.” And to William Goulding, a gold seeker passing through on his way to California in 1849, the city seemed a “vast quantity of pig styes.” Goulding was also dismissive of another current Santa Fe attraction, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mission churches with their beamed ceilings, whitewashed interiors, and carved and painted altarpieces—Christianity interpreted by untutored and not entirely convinced Indian craftsmen. When Goulding visited these churches, he saw not folk art but “a great number of the most miserable paintings, and wax figures, and looking glasses trimmed with tinsel.”

Today, though, all of this looks pretty good to us, especially at Christmastime, when rooftops are lit up with farolitos—lanterns made by anchoring candles in sand inside paper bags (or more practical electric versions of the same thing). Doorways are decorated with chili peppers, and piñon smoke from the city’s fireplaces makes the air smell like cinnamon. (“At our meanest tasks,” Bishop Latour writes home in Willa Gather’s novel, “we have a perpetual odour of incense about us.”) In December the summer crowds are gone. It is cold enough to snow occasionally, but the sun is still warm, and you feel you have the city to yourself.

Wandering through the tree-filled courtyard of Seña Plaza, a onetime Spanish hacienda now restored and given over to antiques shops, I realized that Santa Fe is where Bohemia meets the Old West. Ten years older than the settlement at Plymouth, Santa Fe represents three cultures—Spanish, Indian, and Anglo—filtered through the eyes of the artists and writers and anthropologists who began coming to the city in the 1880s. By the 1920s, more than merely describing what they found, they were leading the battle to preserve it.

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 I 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.

—Jane Colihan TO PLAN A TRIP