Above: Albuquerque’s Twinkle Light Parade illuminates the streets of the Nob Hill neighborhood. Photograph by ZUMA Press Inc./Alamy.
THE FAMILY CALENDAR HUNG IN THE KITCHEN of our downtown Albuquerque home, important dates circled in red, appointments printed in black in my mother’s precise uppercase lettering. This is how my siblings and I learned our fates—a dental appointment, the first day of school, Ash Wednesday. It’s how I learned with horror that my mother had, without uttering a word, enrolled me in piano lessons.
The calendar, utilitarian and slick, never portended the fun things we children looked forward to, like early dismissal from school on State Fair day, or a visit from our Las Cruces cousins. Or Christmas. Then again, we needed no calendar to alert us to the last one. The signs were everywhere, especially in New Mexico, where the holidays are blessed by the sacred and the spiced, and family traditions are passed down in so many kettles, ovens, and musty boxes.
My childhood spanned the 1960s, a decade of change and sleek modernity. At times, that transformative era seemed in conflict with a place that embraces old ways as vigorously as New Mexico.
As Christmas neared, this uneasy juxtaposition was obvious in one of the signs we watched for: the appearance of the giant silver yucca atop the swanky Kistler-Collister department store at Lomas and San Mateo boulevards. Its prickly spines rose like shiny missiles. The aluminum flowers shimmered in the breeze. It was Space Age, Southwestern style, and the sixties all at once, with only the slightest nod to the season it heralded. Nevertheless, it was a sign.
Downtown Albuquerque was similarly adorned with sparkly tinsel garlands and lights strung from streetlamp to streetlamp across Central Avenue. At home, our Christmas tree was shiny and aluminum, too, with each progressively smaller branch pulled from a paper sheath and inserted into its appropriate hole, drilled into a silver-painted broomstick of a trunk. Ornaments—all pink, for some reason—were similarly placed according to size, larger orbs at the bottom, smaller ones at the top. No star.
My mother was like that: pragmatic and sleek, untethered to messy tradition. Long before she became a mother, she was a modern woman of the 1950s, with a nursing career and no desire to settle down into a traditional role right away. She waited until her thirties to marry a city boy from Chicago who knew nothing of farolitos or luminarias, knew nothing of New Mexico, knew nothing of my mother’s Hispanic culture.
For reasons I can only surmise, she put away that part of herself and created an identity detached from ethnicity and history. She spoke perfect English, with no trace of barrio, although both my grandparents were fluent Spanish speakers. She stopped going to Catholic Mass, even as she kept a crispy palm branch behind a paint-by-numbers portrait of Jesus in a back bedroom.
I doubt she ever made a tortilla.
When I was a toddler, our family moved back to Albuquerque from Chicago. Even then, she tried to keep the ways of New Mexico at a distance. She could not, however, distance me or my four younger siblings from Nana.
Our maternal grandmother was the keeper of family traditions, the nurturer of roots, the cultural guardian. She took pride in being the link among generations, passing on that which had been entrusted to her, and ensuring the smooth procession of the grand ancestral pageantry.
My mother had broken the chain. But Nana was determined to re-solder the traditions to us. She helped us spy the signs of the holiday’s approach. She gave us the lessons, the traditions. Weeks before Christmas, her kitchen swirled with smells and sights we never knew at home.
Peppery cinnamon and pungent anise floated in the air, signs that it was bizcochito-baking day. I watched her in awe, committing to memory the spices she added to a large ceramic bowl of flour, sugar, and lard, none of which she measured in cups and ounces, but rather by feel and experience.
Nana’s liquid of choice, the one that most distinguished one family recipe from another, was Mogen David Concord wine, a curious choice for a devout Catholic woman who, to my knowledge, kept no other alcohol in the house. Yet every year, out came that bottle.
It was possibly the very same one every year, with its unusual star and squiggles and the illustration of a family bowing their heads at the dinner table, just like we did. Nana always allowed herself one small crystal sherry glass of the purple tincture—“just a taste,” she told me.
THIS SHORT, ROUND WOMAN with kind eyes and a generous smile was always in good spirits. During bizcochito season, she was even jollier. Nana was a master of the dough. It was obedient in her hands and smooth as satin as she rolled it out on a cloud of flour across her yellow laminate table. The undersides of her upper arms flapped like bat wings, a curl of hair flopping onto her forehead, until the dough reached the exact thickness she wanted.
Years later, I attempted to make a batch of bizcochitos. The dough became a calcified clump that broke into pieces as I commanded it to comply. Only then did I understand the magic Nana employed in cajoling the fickle dough to her will.
Besides the wine, Nana put her signature stamp on the bizcochitos by using the same cookie cutters each year—a diamond and a leaf. A sprinkling of cinnamon sugar on top, some time in the oven, and out came the cookies of my childhood Christmases, not overly sweet, dissolving on the tongue in a spray of spice and shortbread.
Closer to Christmas, Nana pulled out her biggest pot, dark blue with white speckles, the splotches of black on the bottom burned into the metal over the years. Things both intriguing and gruesome—hard kernels of hominy, chopped onions and garlic, sprinkles of oregano and salt, dollops of red chile, and the horrifying parts of a pig no city kid like me is prepared to see—got tossed inside.
As the posole bubbled, warm and spicy, the occasional pig foot bobbed to the surface. Just as quickly, it disappeared again under Nana’s hot, silky red chile sauce, put up in the fall from rehydrated pods and packed away for the year in the freezer.
Traumatized as I was by the presence of pig parts, I never ate a bowl of Nana’s posole. But I’m told it was delicious, especially served with one of her famed tortillas, another of her well-known triumphs over dough.
My mother never attempted to make any of these Christmas delicacies. That’s partly because she knew she could not compete with Nana’s cooking, but also because when she finally decided to have children, they came almost at once—me, followed the next year by twins, followed two years after that by another set of twins. I suspect it also had something to do with the way she saw things: always moving forward with the times, marking the calendar ahead rather than looking back with fond nostalgia. But she seemed perfectly content to let Nana fill in the gaps she could or would not.
Nana made our themed birthday cakes and party favors. She created our Easter dresses. Nana taught me to sew and crochet and bake and care about family and traditions and the magic of a New Mexico Christmas.
My mother, though, taught me to write about all of it. Books, not baking, and literature, not cultural lessons, were her gifts to me. She died in 1971 at age 45, after several painful months battling cancer, five days before Christmas.
That year, there were no bizcochitos. I don’t think Nana saw the holidays the same after that. In the years until her own death in 1990, at age 91, her crystal sherry glass was never again filled.
But an unlikely someone had embraced her harbingers of the holidays and kept them going: My father, that city boy from Chicago, came to love New Mexico culture and cuisine almost as much as he loved the pierogies of his own Polish heritage. Both became our family’s signs that Christmas was coming.
Granted, his bizcochitos were never as perfect as Nana’s. They often came out like misshapen casualties. I suspect he sometimes fell prey to the fickle dough just as I had. One year, he forgot to add sugar to the recipe. We still ate them, because they had the two ingredients that had been so important when Nana made them: tradition and love.
My father is gone now, too. My sister carries on the bizcochito ritual, serving the cookies at family holiday gatherings and boxing them up to send to relatives far away.
I suppose I am more like my mother in the sense that I am okay with efficiency. So, for me, it’s frozen pierogies from the grocery store, bizcochitos from a bakery, and posole without feet.
SO OUR FAMILY'S CHRISTMASES PASSED in this mingling of traditions. Until last year. For us, as well as many others, Covid-19 colored the holidays in somber and solitary hues. We celebrated within our bubbles, our pods, our silos, or alone. Or not at all.
The New Mexico Ballet Company canceled its annual performance of The Nutcracker, which my daughter and I had never missed when she was still young enough to be awestruck by fighting mice and dancing sweets. Gone, too, was the city of Albuquerque’s Twinkle Light Parade and the ABQ Ride Luminaria Tour, the latter so popular that in normal years the seats sell out in minutes.
The River of Lights, a dazzling walk-through display of animated light sculptures gracing the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, went dark. Nob Hill’s festive Shop & Stroll fell silent, with nary a caroler or shopper in sight. Families who gathered together to craft tamales out of masa, meat, chile, and corn husks made smaller stockpiles of them, with fewer hands and less laughter.
Still, we found ways to make do and make merry. Clever city workers pulled pieces of the River of Lights installations and set them up in storefronts along Central Avenue, so that we could still experience a sampling of the sparkling show while cruising in our cars. We were also encouraged to drive the Luminaria Tour route in the protective comfort of our vehicles. A bike touring company even set up a night ride through Old Town to view the thousands of luminarias, still dutifully lit on Christmas Eve.
Masses and other church services moved online. We could sing Handel’s Messiah at the top of our lungs in the privacy of our own Zoom. Tiny tots still got their visit with Santa at the mall, the jolly old elf masked and safely ensconced in protective Plexiglas like a figure in a snow globe. Even the lighting of the official city Christmas tree in Old Town—Albuquerque’s own version of the Rockefeller Center spruce spectacular in New York—went on for the 27th straight year. This time it happened without the crowds, who were asked to watch the massive tree come to life via a livestream.
The Aceves-Martinez family still traveled to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to chop down the 155 trees needed to form the “branches” that jut from the sleeves of the tree’s steel frame, a system not unlike the one my father used to put together the aluminum tree of our childhood. And bizcochitos? Celina’s Biscochitos and Golden Crown Panaderia, two prominent purveyors of the cookies that Nana used to bake, reported big business, their customers relying on curbside service for their fresh-baked orders.
Because we have not yet licked the virus, this Christmas again augurs restrictions and revisions. For some, it will once more be a holiday held at arm’s length. But for others, especially those who are vaccinated, the holidays will bring a grand reunion, as we embrace old, new, and one another for as long as we can.
Having traditions to link us together across the years and the miles feels even more important now. The people and the season we love are still within reach. All we need to do is look for the signs.