ALMOST NOTHING CAN PREPARE YOU for the funky fun of your first Madrid Christmas Parade—no matter how many times you’ve visited the ghost town turned artist haven or binged the Hallmark Channel’s lineup of over-the-top holiday movies. We’d been drawn here, like Santa Claus to a plate of cookies, by the tales of this unique tradition. In the 1930s, when coal mining was thriving, the company town displayed 50,000 lights, a Toyland filled with fairy-tale characters, and a full-scale, wood-and-adobe New Mexican nativity scene perched on a bluff overlooking it all. Legend has it that Continental Airlines would divert December flights so passengers could get a peek. Some even claim that Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A., and parade drew inspiration from the glittering scene. While those times have long passed, the nostalgia still flickers each December.

We arrived early, grabbed a coffee and hot chocolate at Java Junction, in the center of town, and watched the crowd roll in along NM 14. By the time the participants eventually found their places, anticipation crackled like a Christmas bonfire.

Two donkeys pulling a carriage at the Madrid Christmas Parade. Photograph by Steve Gleydura.

Things started normally enough—a fife-and-drum corps, an Arabian horse drill team, donkey-drawn carriages, and a costumed Girl Scout troop. Then all Elf broke loose. People dressed as woodland fairies and other forest creatures frolicked along the two-lane road. A teenager and a dog rode on the back of a red-nosed yak. A band played in a boat on a trailer. A fortune teller sat in a tent atop a VW bus, while a gift-wrapped backhoe, trophy-adorned car, and vintage tractor pulled up the rear. The parade was over in a snap, but the celebration was just beginning at the Mine Shaft Tavern, where we found music, food, and holiday cheer in all its forms.

In this month’s “Keepers of the Flame” cover story (page 38), we look at our state’s mix of holiday festivities—from beachy luminarias in Elephant Butte to a torchlight parade in Red River—and how they anchor us in a history that stretches back generations. Back centuries, in some cases. Maybe that’s what I loved most about Madrid’s Christmas Parade. If placed under a tree and wrapped in tradition, it looks like any other small-town celebration. But it’s the best kind of gift: unexpected, beautiful, and somehow exactly what you wanted—kind of like New Mexico itself.

Read more: A visit to the Madrid Christmas parade, where Rudolph is a red-nosed yak, the night is seldom silent, and even Santa’s been both naughty and nice.