The longest night of winter in the most beautiful place on earth | by Michelle Potter
It is just about the coldest, longest night of winter. It is just about the most beautiful place on earth. If Dante’s inferno is supposed to be some sort of earthly burning hell, this must be the place, except that it is heaven, too. Christmas Eve at Taos Pueblo is as close to human paradoxical perfection as it gets.
Snow squeaks beneath your boots on many Christmases, and every breath floats visibly in frosted air. If you arrive early in the evening, you can go to the little Catholic Church for its Christmas Eve service, or afterwards, watch the procession as Mary, her carpenter husband, and newborn baby are carried out on litters and toted about. The sun spreads its last light like warm butter over Taos Mountain, and the world slides slowly into a great darkness. Guns announce the arrival of new birth, or perhaps they warn evil to stay away on this sacred night.
The huge bonfires rise and roar. Flames lick at the sky from rooftops and ancient walls, fires are born from the hard, dark earth. Just as it rains on the just and the unjust, these fires equally warm the chilled bones of sinners and saints. Whether you bring your bliss or carry the deep grief that stubbornly dogs so many of us this time of year, you are welcome. All evening, people arrive arm in arm, holding each other against a sudden slip, or with mittened hands clasped, or alone. Here, the world burns and smoke drifts sensually, occasionally obscuring the cool glitter of stars close overhead. The air smells of piñon.
We are drawn like moths to the flame. Every face lit by firelight appears to be about as innocent as a baby Jesus. Close to the fire, you feel the heat, but your backside freezes. Then you turn around to warm the other side, trying to toast yourself evenly all over. Next, you try to escape the human condition by drifting to another bonfire, where peoples’ faces glow even more transcendentally and the fire looks less smoky. There, you are still miserable and happy by degrees, as mandated by the human condition. It’s hard to know how to be satisfied.
Nearby, the Rio Pueblo, rimmed with ice like delicate lace, slides through willow-lined banks. High in the mountains above is Blue Lake, from which this water, and all Taos Pueblo people, have emerged from the earth. Their lake is buried deep in winter snow, but gravity still mandates the flow of water down to the people, and to the Rio Grande, and then beyond.
Like a fair number of Taoseños these days, I am a transplant, missing my own family at Christmastime. My memory is driving South Dakota highways. To grandmother’s house we go, past fields of cornstalks rustling dryly in the cold wind. In her warm house there are about half a dozen siblings and half a hundred relatives. An old Lionel train runs relentlessly on a track around the tree, which smells of forests of somewhere else. Like New Mexico, there is the omnipresent question of red or green, but here it is all about Jello. There is too much food, probably too many presents, and definitely too much lutefisk, a horrible Norwegian delicacy served on such occasions in many small farm towns of the Scandinavian persuasion. You profess to like it, though only a starving Viking ever did.
Lives and rituals change. Many of us here profess to like our Christmases quiet and simple. We lie. This is also tourist season, ski season, and for many of us, like Santa’s good little helpers, we are pressed to deliver the goods. Many a mama (like me) must work all day (okay, I teach skiing and it’s fun but nevertheless exhausting). My own Christmas Eve tradition is to come home from a hard day on the slopes, slam dinner on the table, and try to put my fork down before everyone rips through the presents. If I don’t burn the dinner, and everyone is mannerful and appreciative, I’m content. But I’m overwhelmingly relieved. I have a glass of wine, feed the wrapping paper to the fireplace, then rally and head for the Pueblo.
Here, the world is set to rights. I tenderly love my friends and family, and feel slightly generous toward my enemies and try to forgive myself my bitternesses. I fear the cold and adore the icy silence of the stars. Some years, I have later gone for a hot buttered rum at the Taos Inn, or candlelight communion at the el Pueblito Methodist church, or oyster stew at a friend’s cozy party. Other years, when the kids have gone to my ex’s, it has me down to just me, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, and, as my youngest kid calls them, white-and-black movies. In any case, there are miracles in Taos: I feel grateful, tired, and never alone.
The next morning, I am glad life is back to simple joys, ordinary beauty, and everyday craziness. One Christmas morning, not wanting to add another car to the road, I hitchhiked up to the ski valley. When I stuck out my thumb, Santa pulled over.
“Hi Santa,” I grinned, pleased to see the jolly old man, who was, in this case, a young guy with a red suit and beard. “Merry Christmas.”
“Get in,” he roared. “I’m late for work.”
Certainly Santa, on such an occasion, is above the law, ho ho ho. We fairly flew up that icy road in record time, as only Santa can do, particularly in a Suburban without any reindeer to slow him down.
Another year three wise young Pueblo maidens appeared at my bonfire on Christmas Eve. They interrupted my deep reverie to ask, “What color eyes to you think Mary has?”
My blue eyes looked into their brown ones and I hedged. “I don’t really know, ” I answered. “What do you think?”
We all pondered such a question. Whatever color Mary’s eyes might be, I hope their own will always reflect that hopeful light from a warming fire. I hope, too, on the longest night of the year, we can look up to the dark comfort of sky and see clearly: The bright watchers are still there.
— Michele Potter lives and writes in Taos, NM.
Christmas Eve, Taos Pueblo – Etching by Gene Kloss, a Taos artist whose name has become synonymous with the Taos Art Colony. Courtesy of Gallery A, Taos.
This article appeared on page 40 of the Winter 2004-2005 print edition of SkiCountry.