IF NOT FOR THE PAPER-BAG LANTERNS snaking over the sand dunes, I might’ve been afraid of the dark. Last December’s quarter moon was still rising on the 2021 Elephant Butte Luminaria Beachwalk when I arrived—straight from the small-town magic of Truth or Consequences’s Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade—to check out the annual holiday event. Things were already looking weirder than the latter-day Norman Rockwell scene I’d come from. Prehistoric humps of land sloped up from the glittering black lake. Down the freezing beach, where the lights pointed, the only sound I could make out was a festive but fuzzy roar.

I loped close behind a safe-looking trio—an elderly man, a young girl, and a rumpled dog—wondering if they’d adopt me for the occasion. There was nothing to worry about. In five minutes, I was surrounded by a mass of bundled fellow beachgoers caroling along to José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” which blasted from a trailer vined with chile lights. I held a steaming bowl of posole, stood beside a raging bonfire tended by VFW Post 1389, and gently tried to keep someone’s wayward toddler from attacking an inflatable snowman.

Circled by strangers, I’d found my bearings. I was in the heart of New Mexico’s holiday season. And by the otherworldly light of a bunch of backhoe-dug campfire pits, we were connecting.

At the Luminaria Beachwalk, it’s all about who has the biggest displays and the best food.

“Our New Mexico holiday traditions are like us,” State Historian Rob Martínez tells me over the phone nearly a year later. “They’re incredibly diverse. They have roots in a lot of different parts of the world, including right here in New Mexico. It doesn’t matter if you’re Puebloan, Hispanic, Apache, Navajo, Genízaro, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, American, Protestant. We all engage in rituals that go back generations and go back centuries.”

The Elephant Butte Luminaria Beachwalk, which centers on a gathering of bonfires sponsored by local organizations, is one of the newest of these rites. It began in the early 2000s as a festive fundraiser with three campfires. “It soon blossomed into this annual competition of who can decorate with the most lights, have the best food and music, and draw the biggest crowd,” says Cathy Vickers, who helped conceive the event.

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Other New Mexico festivities take the form of quirky light parades in T or C and Madrid, where you might see an LED-adorned artist riding a hover-board, or a teen and a dog on the back of a red-nosed yak. On the plaza in Old Mesilla, a historic house shows off nearly 200 nacimientos, or nativity scenes. Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo ushers in Christmas Eve with the dance of the Matachines and a pine-torch procession. Carlsbad takes visitors on a riverboat tour of illuminated backyards. And in Pecos, a Las Posadas procession on nine consecutive evenings reenacts Mary and Joseph’s candlelit search for shelter. The pilgrims pray with alabados, Spanish colonial hymns preserved by generations of New Mexicans.

“They’re illuminating,” Martínez says of these rites. “They illuminate us both literally, with fire and light, but also with their human spirit.”

The elemental nature of these celebrations, where fire meets air, adds a heady quality to New Mexico holiday memories. Pulitzer Prize–winning author N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) was 12 when his family moved from Arizona to Jemez Pueblo in 1946. That first Christmas Eve in the state was “beyond my imagining,” Momaday writes in his book Circle of Wonder, recalling holiday bonfires at the pueblo. “The air was cold and crisp and scented with sweet smoke. The night sky was radiant; the silence was vast and serene. In all the years of my life I have not gone farther into the universe.”

Bonfires warm the beach in Elephant Butte.

For 80-year-old santera and author Marie Romero Cash, who grew up on Santa Fe’s West Houghton Street, the building of bonfires was a Christmas Eve job for her older brothers. “Out in the yard at dusk, my sister Rosalie and I would sit on the porch steps and watch as our brothers gathered planks of fireplace wood chopped to a certain length, stacked in a criss-cross fashion, stuffed with whatever paper and kindling they could find, and wait for it to get dark enough so the bonfire could be lit,” she vividly recalls of her working-class neighborhood’s celebration. “Neighborhood boys followed in the same fashion and the neighborhood would soon be lit up like a proverbial Christmas tree.”

Nearly 300 miles south, in Mesilla, Michael Romero Taylor remembers “pretty glorious” Christmas Eves when he served as an altar boy at midnight Mass. “The rituals, the singing, the incense,” he recalls. “It was like going to the Vatican for a little kid.”

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His family, led by his parents, J. Paul Taylor, now 102, and Mary Daniels Taylor (1922–2007), set up a large plaster nativity scene in the old village’s plaza, then placed paper-sack lanterns leading from the plaza to their zaguán, or central hallway, to welcome Las Posadas processions. “Sometimes somebody would be really out of tune,” Taylor says. “Someone else would get the giggles, and they’d have to stop and regroup. But once they were let in, they got to have biscochitos and hot chocolate. That’s still a big tradition in Mesilla.” The Taylor family’s collection of nacimientos is annually showcased at their home, which is now the Taylor-Mesilla Historic Property.

These amber-colored holiday moments are suspended in time. But one spark is all it takes to set the magic back in motion.

My own 102-year-old grandmother, who lived in Albuquerque in the early 1960s, has never forgotten the beauty of her first Christmas there. “It snowed the night before,” she recalls, “and we were the first ones out to church, so there were no tracks. The luminarias lined the sidewalk going into the church. I just remember it being absolutely gorgeous.”

One Christmas Eve, shortly after my grandpa passed away, my brother and I plotted a New Mexico–style surprise at the house she’d moved to in southern California. We lined the porch with sand-filled bags, placed votive candles in each, lit them at dusk, and called her outside. Tiny cinders swirled up into the warm evening air, and the joy written on her face was the best Christmas gift any of us could have imagined.

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