Niagara Gazette

December 11, 2008

EXTRA: New Mexicans put their own spin on Christmas


Associated Press Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — You wouldn't know it to look at most Christmas cards or holiday TV specials, but Christmas isn't about snow and holly everywhere.

In the American Southwest, is about local tradition: religious processions that date back centuries, lighted candles in paper bags, the distinct smell of burning pinon.

"All of the different things about New Mexico are kind of distilled into one time of the year," says Kathy Hiatt, an Old Town Merchants Association spokeswoman.

And what better holiday for a state whose official question — referring to chile — is "Red or green?"

New Mexicans use what's local — trimming their trees with miniature Native American pots, chile pepper-shaped ornaments, decorations of straw or painted, shaped tin and plastic chile peppers encasing Christmas lights. They burn native pinon wood in their fireplaces; light traditional farolitos or luminarias; cook spicy foods.

Churches hold Las Posadas processions, a seeking-lodging-in-Bethlehem scene on the move, with Mary and Joseph going from door to door.

The lights of Christmas here are distinctive as well. Small votive candles set in sand inside paper bags — known as farolitos in northern New Mexico and luminarias in the south — send out a muted, flickering light.

Entire neighborhoods set thousands of them out on Christmas Eve, and people stroll among them.

"There's nothing like candlelight, real candlelight, to give a wonderful sense of peace," Hiatt says.

Then there's the food, which adds the scents of cinnamon and chile. Traditional Christmastime food includes posole, a pork, chile and hominy stew; biscochitos, a cinnamon-and anise-flavored cookie that's the state's official cookie; and tamales, steam-cooked cornmeal dough around a filling, usually pork and red chile.

"Fear not the chile," says Tricia Ware, editor in chief of the state-run New Mexico magazine. "...It will warm you from the inside out."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.