THE 2,000 LUMINARIAS, set and lit by hand, line the road up the mesa to Acoma Pueblo’s 370-foot-high Sky City. Inside the 1629 San Esteban del Rey Mission Church, tribal dancers pound their feet onto the dirt floor, commemorating the birth of the savior. It’s a cherished Christmas Eve tradition in New Mexico, one that kicks off four days of celebrations at the pueblo.

Since the pandemic, however, such events have gone dark, as have tours of Sky City. The tribe is still debating whether to welcome the public to such a large gathering this year, says Melvin Juanico, operations manager of the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum, which are open. “Even if we don’t do it, I hope we can still have some kind of event down at the cultural center and maybe light the luminarias,” he says.

The Christmas dances, along with the tribe’s September 2 feast day, are the only times the tribe actively uses the church. All the dirt, water, and rocks required to build its massive walls had to be carried by tribal members from the land below. The church stands today as a symbol of both the ancestors’ labor, which was forced by Franciscan friars, and their ability to outlast the priests’ presence.

“It takes us back in time to when our ancestors were together as a whole, a community caring for one another, and us coming together now to share that goodness, that life, and pray for an even better life in the future,” Juanico says. “They brought that to us.”

Read more: St. Joseph Apache Mission reflects the traditions—and the care—of Mescalero people.