At the core of its being, Santa Fe County is a place of history, culture and ritual. During the holiday season it feels even more like the urgency of modern life quietly fades. A still, reverent ambience settles over Northern New Mexico as Christmas nears, intensifying the unique sights and scents of a culture preserved through centuries. Perhaps there’s no better sign of the holidays drawing close as the smoke of piñon wood rising from the adobe homes and dancing in the clear night sky. It wouldn’t be Christmas in Santa Fe County without chile, whose colors are, quite fittingly, red and green.
The mining town of Madrid, also known as the “Christmas City” by those in the know, is quite the hidden holiday gem. In its early days, the booming coal town boasted its own electric power plant in order to run mining equipment, which enabled an unrivaled Christmas celebration. It is said that commercial airlines would divert their paths just to get a glimpse of the luminescent town and its Christmas cheer.
Unfortunately, like so many other Southwestern communities, Madrid soon turned into a ghost town as the coal mines shut down, but unlike many of its counterparts, Madrid’s story wasn’t finished but had just begun. Revived in the 70’s after several decades by wandering free spirits looking for a rural town to call home, Madrid once again earned the title of “Christmas City.” Although today’s Christmas celebrations are more relaxed than those of its early days, the residents still take pride in their yearly festival, featuring a parade on the first Saturday of December, carriage rides throughout the month and a Christmas light competition, the entire town bursting with seasonal charm. This year’s Madrid Christmas Open House runs December 3-4, December 10-11 and December 17-18. The parade is on Saturday, December 3 and starts at 4pm.
If you’re looking for a truly soulful Christmas celebration, don’t miss a visit to see the farolitos that light up El Santuario de Chimayo. The little chapel resonates with the collective voices of centuries of worshipers and stories from the bible come to life within the walls. Farolitos (or luminarias in some parts) are traditionally paper bag lanterns filled a few inches with sand and a votive candle. For many New Mexicans, the farolitos represent a light for Mary and Joseph as they search for an inn.
The thick adobe walls, two bell towers and six-foot crucifix of the chapel, located between Santa Fe and Taos in the village of Chimayó, is a prime example of Spanish Colonial architecture. But the real treasure of the little chapel is the believed curing power of the “holy dirt” found in the interior. A door to the left of the main corridor guides you to a closet-sized room, within which you’ll find a tiny well, known as el pocito, dug into the ground holding the cherished soil. During Christmas time, hundreds of farolitos cast a warm glow onto the adobe walls of the chapel, enriching both the spirit and the senses. This is the perfect little place to reflect on what Christmas really means.
If you find yourself in Santa Fe County during the holidays, you’re not getting the true experience if you don’t honor traditions with unique New Mexican dishes. Biscochitos – anise and cinnamon flavored butter cookies, posole – a hearty soup of corn and pork topped with chile, and tamales – corn meal dough (masa) with a meat filling wrapped in corn husks and steamed are just a few traditional New Mexican dishes served during the holidays. You can find tamales, posole and biscochitos excellently prepared at Rancho de Chimayó (a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award winner) in Chimayó. Located just a half mile up the road from the chapel, the restaurant has a well-deserved long standing reputation for great New Mexican cuisine served in a charming atmosphere.
The holidays come around just once a year and when it does we hope to find you here. Start planning your holiday adventure by ordering the Santa Fe travel guide. Be sure to check out our Deals and Specials page, which includes special offers on lodging, meals and shopping.