In a December 3, 1590, journal entry, Spanish explorer Gaspar Costaño de Sosa mentioned the small bonfires his cohorts had lit to guide a scout back to camp. Luminarias, he called them, thereby casting the first stone in what’s now a 426-year-old, northern-versus-southern New Mexico debate over the little paper bags that light up our holiday nights.

“They’re farolitos,” folks north of La Bajada Hill insist.

“Luminarias,” everyone south says.

Over the years, even linguists have disagreed. Their arguments for and against fill a fat file at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. Among the few certainties: Before the 1872 invention of flat-bottomed paper bags, before the ready availability of votive candles, and before electricity and strings of “icicle lights,” New Mexicans marked the paths to their doors and the local church with small, Sosa-style bonfires on Christmas Eve—symbolically lighting the way for the Holy Family.

Chinese paper lanterns found their way to Santa Fe via the 18th-century Manila galleons and El Camino Real, but the fragile paper didn’t invite outdoor use. Once cheaper paper bags arrived on the Santa Fe Trail, locals discovered they could fold down the tops, anchor them with a few handfuls of sand, and set a small candle inside for a subtler display that didn’t deplete the winter woodpile.

But what to call them? Some folks stuck with luminaria—“light” in Spanish. Others adopted farolito, from farol, the Spanish word for “lantern.” In the 1930s, as more people got the paper-bag bug, newspaper articles dithered, alternately calling them farolitos, linternitas, and farolillos. In 1958, the august New York Times chimed in, but said Albuquerqueans called them farolitos, further confusing the geography. Before his 1996 death, author and historian Fray Angélico himself waded into the debate and essentially concluded, “Whatever.”

Today the bags-and-candles tradition stretches from California to Maine. In Santa Fe, the Christmas Eve Farolito Walk on Canyon Road is a beloved community event ( Head out after sundown to stroll the streets (no cars allowed!) and meet some locals in front of their shops and homes. Just don’t compliment them on their luminarias. You’re in the north now. As for those plastic versions bedecking rooflines throughout the holiday season, take it from renowned Santa Fe archaeologist Cordelia Snow, whose 1991 letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican cheekily dubbed them “electrolitos.” —Kate Nelson

Sugar Plum Fairies and their ilk always dance in Shira Greenberg’s Nutcracker on the Rocks, but they tend to do it while Janis Joplin or the Velvet Underground thunders away. The Keshet Center for the Arts’ annual production stars a 140-member cast of pros and amateurs of all abilities. What happens when the Mouse King meets the Queen of Soul in a swirl of swing, hip-hop, and African dance? This you gotta see.

And this is the year to see it in the troupe’s Albuquerque performance space. With this season’s shows, Greenberg, Keshet’s artistic director, marks her 20th rock-and-roll retelling of young love, vengeful rodents, and a tragic prince. It’s also the 200th anniversary of the E.T.A. Hoffman story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” With those two milestones in place, Greenberg says, the curtains will close on her production for the final time this year.

That’s right. It’s your last chance to see Nutcracker on the Rocks in all its motley glory. The show, which runs from November 26 to December 11, has always been known for its professionalism and welcoming embrace of people who leap like Misty Copeland—or use a wheelchair to pirouette across the stage. This year will be no different. In fact, several performances will be sensory-friendly for folks who need more space around them or fewer lighting elements. Meanwhile, cast members from the past two decades—many of whom have gone on to much bigger stages around the globe—will shimmy and twirl throughout the swan-song shows.

“It’s our final performance, and so we are going out with a bang,” says Keshet communications director Carolyn Tobias. “It has had a great run of bringing the community together. By closing this one chapter, we make way for something new. But it is still bittersweet.” More information: (505) 227-8583; —Tamara Shope 

The shaggy white fur of some unknown Arctic animal spills down the front of a heavy, crimson velvet robe. Intricately designed strips of brocade line the pockets, sleeves, and ample hood, while golden embroidery and shiny rickrack crisscross down the back. Inside, yards of luscious emerald silk line what must be the most fabulous Santa suit in New Mexico.

It appears just once a year, when the most popular man in town makes his way across the Palace of the Governors’ portal, through a cheering throng of ardent fans (most of them still in grade school).

The New Mexico History Museum’s annual Christmas at the Palace event offers plenty of entertainment: live music, hot cider, piñatas, bonfires, and free admission to all of the Palace’s exhibits. But the longest and most patient lines are peopled by those waiting to whisper into the ear of a Santa dressed to the nines. Not precisely a museum artifact, Santa’s coat is, nonetheless, precious. It dates back to the event’s 1982 birth, when the Bank of Santa Fe offered to help fund a community Yuletide event. A museum staffer’s wife worked as a seamstress for the Santa Fe Opera and offered to whip up an outfit worthy of a Santa far finer than your ordinary street-corner bell ringer.

The designs of her creation’s metallic embroidery speak to Saint Nick’s Turkish roots, while the coat’s luscious warmth and elaborate cap—in addition to the hood—guard against the North Pole chill. Sprinkles of snow sometimes accent his Palace courtyard appearances. There, ringed by farolitos, bonfires, hay bales, and some of the cutest elves in all the land, his eminence casts a presence that many participants have come to cherish. Some families can count successive generations of wishful children awaiting their visit with a Santa who listens oh so carefully, while enrobed in a most convincing look. Heads up: Advance radar tracking predicts he and Mrs. Claus will alight at the Palace from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on December 9. More information: (505) 476-5200; —K.N.

For thousands of New Mexicans, it isn’t Christmas until they wander the glowing ruins at Jemez Historic Site. On top of some 1,400 individually lit farolitos, the annual Light Among the Ruins festivities include bonfires, Native dances, flute music, horse-drawn wagons, and the full-on charm of Jémez Springs. But it’s likely that most visitors don’t realize the significant history each votive light evokes—a tale of Native pride and resilience.

At nearby Jemez Pueblo, they tell the story of Fray Gerónimo de Zárate-Salmeron and the Mission of San José at today’s Jemez Historic Site. The story says that after the mission was built in 1621, Salmeron forced all Jemez people—not just those in the surrounding village of Giusewa (“Hot Place”)—to attend Mass. This included the people high atop Virgin Mesa at the village of Amoxiumqua (“Ant Hill Place”). The people of Amoxiumqua did not appreciate the request. It was not their religion, and, moreover, it was a long walk. They had already provided food, labor, and even some of their children to distant Spanish settlements. Yet each Sunday, the people of Amoxiumqua did as they were told and, with walking sticks in hand, made the long trek down the mesa to San José Mission. Upon reaching the church, they cast aside their staves and entered.

Over many weeks and months, this pile of wooden staves grew. It began to surround the church as the people of Amoxiumqua came back time and again to attend Sunday Mass. It is said that Salmeron took great pride in the ever-growing pile, believing the wood represented a physical reminder of the Jemez people’s submission before his Christian God.

However, the clever people of Amoxiumqua were far from surrendered. Once the pile grew to great proportions, it was set afire. The church burned and the Jemez Revolt of 1623 ensued. The conflict lasted more than three years and resulted in many deaths. Today, the ruins serve as a poignant reminder of what it took for different cultures to learn to abide one another’s existence.

Every year, on the second Saturday in December, Jemez hands reach in to light the candles. Jemez songs echo on the canyon walls. Buffalo dancers armed with bows parade to the beat of drums. And the San José Mission is bathed in a flickering glow.

This year’s free event is December 10, 5–9 p.m. Come for the Christmas spirit and the Jemez hospitality, eons old and centuries strong. More information: (575) 829-3530; nmhistoricsites.orgMatthew J. Barbour, regional manager, Coronado and Jemez Historic Sites

FT Red and Green Traditions Preformance

Even though not a single carol is on the program, Performance Santa Fe’s annual Christmas Eve concert has become, for many, an indispensable Christmas tradition. The 821-seat Lensic Performing Arts Center is usually sold out. Tourists and locals alike don their spiffiest, whether silks and furs or pressed blue jeans and fancy cowboy boots, to hear some of the world’s most notable soloists before heading up a Canyon Road lined with farolitos and bonfires—a Christmas tradition even older than the concert.

Performance Santa Fe’s music director, Joe Illick, says the city’s status as a major tourist destination and its musically adventurous audiences combine to make the concert a very special event. Everybody, including world-class musicians, wants to come to Santa Fe, and that means Illick can assemble a “pickup” orchestra just by inviting notable musicians from New York and elsewhere to play during the holidays, along with about six New Mexico orchestra members.

“If they’ve been here before, they’ve had a wonderful time,” he says. “And I have discovered that many would rather come here for the holidays than be in world capitals.”

Illick, who took over as music director in 2008 and is moving on after this season, strives to make the concert celebratory but not necessarily Christmassy. This year’s program features Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Claire Huangci. “It’s contemporary but full of melody and rhythmic verve,” Illick says, “so it has the right feel for a celebratory concert.” The piece is also one of the most “challenging and ferocious” concertos by the 20th-century Russian composer, he adds, so it is not often heard. Huangci, 26, has been performing professionally since she was 10. This will be her third Performance Santa Fe appearance.

Also on the Christmas Eve program this year is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a musical adaptation from the “Thousand and One Nights” story in which a Persian queen beguiles her husband—and saves her own life—by telling the king a different story each night. Audiences love it, Illick says, and at the family-friendly matinee performance, ushers will be in costume.

Under a variety of names, Performance Santa Fe has been in existence for 80 years; the holiday concert tradition began in 1994. Evening performances start early, usually at 5 p.m. The idea, says managing director Sandra Noe, is to leave time for people to move on to other holiday activities. Illick added a second holiday concert, on New Year’s Eve, and launched the family concert series three years ago. This year, the New Year’s Eve event will feature Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a chorus and four soloists. More information: (505) 988-1234; —Karen Peterson

When the halls are decked during those eggnog-saturated office parties, you can’t walk by a copy machine without bumping into faux evergreen and holly. But maybe there’s a truer, perhaps even piquant, way to say “season’s greetings.” Here in the Land of Enchantment, some people really do like it hot, and New Mexico State University has just the thing for stocking stuffers with a fiery twist.

Once upon a time, pepper plants were exchanged among friends and families to make things merry and bright, but eventually the poinsettia began to horn in with its garish trimmings. Now, NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute aims to bring the heat back to your family table. It’s developed dwarf and semi-dwarf chile pepper plants for just about every season, sold in seed packets and named for more than a dozen holidays. Sure, red and green are standard colors for both chile and Christmas. But consider: The seeds take about 120 days from planting to fruiting and are perfect indoor plants, so you could send your Valentine a Christmas present that, planted now, will produce a February bouquet of peppers that turn from creamy white to bright red. Or you can celebrate April Fool’s Day with long, skinny, multicolored peppers that mimic a jester’s hat. The NuMex Easter, which produces lilac-colored peppers, even earned NMSU a coveted All-America Selection award. It’s proof that you don’t have to have much of a green thumb to get all de colores in your life.

This season, stuff your loved ones’ stockings with packets of seeds for NuMex Christmas (green little pods that turn to vivid red) or NuMex Farolitos (dazzling hanging lanterns), both bright enough to rival twinkling lights.

“It’s purely New Mexican to have a chile pepper plant sitting at your table during the holidays,” says Danice Coon, senior research specialist for NMSU’s chile breeding program. And, she says, every plant is edible. One warning: While these chile de árbol descendants were bred for their beauty, the majority also skim the Scoville scale’s hot-hot-hot digits. More information: (575) 646-3028; —T.S.

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