There were many happy Christmas Days when I was a child. They were filled with family, pageant sheep and shepherd costumes, visions of Santa Claus and almost always exactly what I wanted under the tree. Those were great.
However, the Christmas memory that remains closest to my heart was when I was about 40. That one Christmas our three children were still small: 5,8 and 10. Our youngest, Sam, had the Chicken Pox that year. My family still lived in the North Valley section of Albuquerque, in a neighborhood where no electric lights were used on Christmas Eve. The only lighted decorations were farolitos. Faralitos are the small paper bags, weighted with sand and containing a votive candle.
We awoke fairly early on Christmas Eve that year to the smell of posole simmering. We sat on the front of the portal folding the tops of the paper bags for the farolitos with my brother and my cousins and their spouses. We folded and talked and laughed and cried. We ate Christmas fruit and sweets. Frequently, friends dropped by and stayed to fold sacks and talk for awhile. It seemed that most of the kids that grew up with us in that neighborhood were back for Christmas that year, with their families.
The farolitos were set in rows on curbs, sidewalks, fence and roof lines. About dusk it was time to light the candles. The kids, especially the boys, begged to be assigned to light the ones on the roof line. We bit our lips, hoped for the best and let them do it. Everyone survived and the fires were small.
It was a clear, calm evening with just enough chill in the air so that you knew it was Christmas. As the last pink glow faded from the Sandia mountains, the neighborhood settled into the quiet warmth of the glowing farolitos. As far as your eye could see, line after line of soft yellow flickering lights.
We bundled the babies and the Grandmas in warm coats. We carried ours against the deepening chill. We walked in the neighborhood, transfixed by the beauty of the simplest of decoration: a brown paper bag, sand and a candle.
As we walked along we were invited in everywhere. Come share a tamale or a bowl of posole with us. Have some natillas and a bizcochito. The magic of Christmas in New Mexico was in full flower.
We walked, ate, talked and ate some more, until 10:00. Then the bells at St. Michael’s began to peal, announcing the time for lessons and carols to be followed by La Misa de Gallo, midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The neighborhood emptied into the Church. The carols were familar and sung with great heart by choir and congregation. The Mass was exactly as you would imagine, pomp and circumstance punctuated by squeals of delight.
After Mass, as Deb and I lay among our sleeping children, all piled in one bed. I needed nothing else for a perfect Christmas. Surely, there were gifts under the tree the next morning. But, there in the first hours of that Christmas Day I already had everything I wanted, and it was perfect.
Merry Christmas to us all, each and every one. May it be memorable for you, this year.