Friday, December 12, 2008

Wacky & wonderful holiday traditions

LAS CRUCES AND MESILLA — It’s the time of year for sacred rites that inspire joy and creative and touching Southwestern traditions that can conjure smiles, awe and wonder and sometimes amazed amusement.
Tanks of piranhas decked with poinsettias. Rolling fields of fluffy white stuff that turns out to be not snow, but cotton harvest remnants. Hand-crafted snowguys with red chile noses. Giant roadrunner sculptures made out of recycled trash, merrily lit with twinkle lights.
Gathering with amigos on Christmas Eve on the Mesilla Plaza. Watching dancers in feather bonnets and Our Lady of Guadalupe tunics at Tortugas Pueblo. Figuring out new ways to hang our cowboy boot stockings on a kiva fireplace. Homemade holiday tamales and (new to me this year) turkey and mashed potatoes with red chile gravy and cranberry-green chile sauce. Yucca pod wreaths and tumbleweed Christmas trees …
These are just a few of my favorite holiday things.
The holidays here are a wonderfully eclectic mixture of the beautiful and traditional … and the deeply weird. And it all just keeps getting better.
This is my 15th holiday season in this part of the state, and I’ve fallen in love with some traditional celebrations and been introduced to new favorites, some of which have died and been reborn in new forms.
I’m looking forward to the 2008 version of La Posada Friday on the Downtown Mall, especially after hearing tales from some good friends who grew up here. The way they’ve explained it, it’s sort of like a Christmas version of trick or treat. A friend said she and her buddies used to go from house to house asking if there was room at the inn, and has fond memories of being rewarded with tamales and biscochitos and all kinds of goodies.
This week, everyone will be able to enjoy singing followed by goodies and a piñata.
It’s one tradition I’ve seen reborn in recent years, along with “Los Pastores,” an ancient ritual with deep roots in the Mesilla Valley that has come back after a few tough years. It was started here nearly half a century ago by a group of Mesilla families who are determined to keep it alive.
When it comes to holiday traditions, Mesilla is probably ground zero in both the most beautiful and most weird categories.
Josefina’s Gate, possibly the most photographed adobe structure in southern New Mexico, is always beautiful this time of year, and was even before Josefina’s daughter, Kathleen Foreman, transformed her late mom’s adobe home into one of the region’s loveliest lunch and tea rooms. The late, great Josefina Gamboa Biel is credited with starting Mesilla’s tradition of luminarias, carols and drinks on the Mesilla Plaza on Christmas Eve. It’s one of the most wonderful ways to spend Dec. 24 to be found anywhere on the planet, in my opinion.
But I also like the weird stuff: Like the Mesilla classic that I think of as the outlaw redemption center tableau: a beautiful, life-sized Nativity scene perched on the roof of Billy the Kid Gift Shop, with an image of Billy hanging out below.
And right across the street, at La Posta, I always make a point of taking visitors to see the cages of parrots and tanks of piranhas flanked by banks of bright red poinsettias accented by darting, flashing bits of gold nearby. I don’t always reveal that the glittering goldfish aren’t decorations, but lunch for the piranhas. Somehow, I’ve always managed to schedule my tours to avoid feeding times.
Last week, it was wonderful to celebrate an event-filled Christmas Superweekend and what this year became its crown jewel: Winterfest.
I remember my first Christmas in Las Cruces, walking through the crumbling, dirty Downtown Mall that was then termed “a graveyard of high hopes.”
This month, it was a sparkling winter wonderland of promises fulfilled, as crowds drifted from the refurbished Branigan Cultural Center and relatively new Las Cruces Museum of Art through the 18 venues, including galleries and theaters, featured in the monthly Downtown Ramble and on to the spruced-up block housing the restored Rio Grande Theatre. Everything was aglow with electric lights and luminarias. There was music and dancing and treats and transport via horse-drawn carriages to more celebrations at Pioneer Women’s Park and the beautifully restored Court Youth Center.
It hit me, as then-toddler grandson Alex the great use to put it, in “one swell foop.”
In the last decade, many of our high hopes have been realized. Our downtown is becoming a delight.
Merry Christmas.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at

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