Christmas dances at Northern New Mexico Pueblos

This post on pueblo dances in Northern New Mexico first published in December 2010 was updated on 11/18/2015

One of the greatest cultural resources in New Mexico are the pueblos, home to indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. All but one of the Eight Northern Pueblos are within an hour’s drive of Santa Fe. Taos is a little further.

Celicillon Traditional Zuni Dancers Photo by Nick Pecastaing, courtesy of Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

Celicillon Traditional Zuni Dancers Photo by Nick Pecastaing, courtesy of Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

The pueblos continue to follow traditional spiritual practices as they have done for uncounted generations. Today, many are intertwined with the Catholicism the Spanish forced them to embrace. Ceremonial dances are a vital part of pueblo life. Many fall over the Christmas holiday season and are open to the public. The exact meaning of the dances can only be guessed at by outsiders; they are private about their religious practices. Dances are often part of larger ceremonies not shared with outsiders. These may have gone on for days prior to the public part of these rituals. Click here for a schedule of pueblo dances during the Christmas holiday season.

If you go, it is important to follow pueblo etiquette for these spiritual ceremonies. Absolutely no photos are allowed. The best thing to do is leave your cell phone in the car, there are stories of phones being confiscated from people believed to have taken photos. Also, don’t talk to dancers, don’t walk across the dance plaza, don’t ask questions about the dances. Recently, the public was banned from a celebration at one pueblo that was formerly open to them because they violated these simple requests. Remember you’re visiting a sovereign nation on a day that is special to them. It’s an honor to be able to attend these,

Northern New Mexico pueblo dances held at Christmas

Buffalo and Deer Dances are celebrations of thanksgiving to the game animals for making themselves available to the hunters to feed the People. Without these they would starve. The dances may also be part of traditional Solstice ceremonies that existed long before the Spanish came to the “New World”.

Los Matachines reflects the assimilation of Christian influence on the pueblo peoples. The dance, believed to have originated in Spain at the time of Moorish occupation, was brought to the New World by the Spanish settlers. It was used by the Franciscan friars to channel what they considered heathen dances into an acceptable and reverent format. Los Matachines is also danced by people of Spanish descent. It has been performed at Bernalillo, north of Albuquerque, for over three-hundred years. Among the Pueblos, Santa Clara and Jemez use drums for Los Matachines; other Pueblos use fiddle and guitar, harking back to the Spanish origins.

The Turtle Dance seems to have at least two interpretations. According to Jill Sweet, it is a celebration of the fertility, youth, agriculture and rain. According to a discography from New World Records, the Turtle Dance, represents the life-cycle, the end of the old year and beginning of the new. In Masked Gods, Frank Waters, southwest writer and frequent observer of Pueblo life, writes that the Taos Pueblo version of the dance is a representation of the emergence from the third world, water.

Because the Pueblos consider the dances to be sacred, we may never know their exact meaning. Spiritual matters are not shared with outsiders. Observers can only guess.

Christmas Eve pueblo dances

Christmas Eve brings torchlight processions and dances at a few of the Pueblos. (Please note that dances and Pueblos dancing can vary from year to year. Check with the Pueblo for current information)

Nambe- Buffalo Dance starting in the afternoon.
Ohkay Owingeh- Las Matachines bonfires lit at sundown
- Las Matachines arrive starting late afternoon; Bonfire dance at night 
dances before and after Mass.
Taos Pueblo On Christmas Eve There is a Vespers service  in St. Jerome’s Church at 4pm followed by a candlelight procession carrying the statue of the Virgin around the Plaza. Bonfires are lit and the men shoot rifles into the air to celebrate Christ’s birth. The Taos Pueblo begins events in late afternoon and charges their regular admission for these. Christmas Day admission to the Pueblos is free.

Christmas Day pueblo dances

The Pueblos listed below traditionally hold dances on Christmas Day.  (Dances can start anytime from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. You can get a rough time and the dance they are performing  by contacting the Pueblo directly.)

Ohkay Owingeh
Las Matachinas at about 11:30am and 4:30pm (times are approximate)
Picuris Las Matachinas
Santa Clara
Check with the Pueblo about a week before.
San Ildefonso 
Check with the Pueblo about a week before
Taos Pueblo Check in mid-December to see if they have dances open to the public

Other dances around the holidays

12/26/15 Ohkay Owingeh has the Turtle Dance at about 10:30am

1/1/16 Picuris Pueblo Transfer of Canes to new pueblo officials and various dances

1/6/16 King’s Day Celebration many pueblos will dance either the Antelope, Buffalo or Deer dances

These dances are part of each pueblo’s spiritual practice and are religious ceremonies. It is a privilege to attend, and an honor to be allowed to share these ceremonies that are deeply central to their lives. If you go, it is important to follow proper etiquette. Taos Pueblo recently closed to visitors on feast days because they didn’t respect the simple rules.

Basic etiquette for pueblo dances

These are the highlights.

Don’t bring your camera onto the pueblo. Photos are strictly prohibited. We leave our cell phones in the car. Cameras and cell phones can be confiscated. You’re visiting a sovereign nation and have to abide by their rules.

Don’t ask questions about the dances or any other aspects of pueblo life as some things aren’t shared. If you do ask and don’t get an answer, let it go.

Don’t speak during dances, they are sacred ceremonies.

Don’t walk across the area where the dancing is.

On feast days, only enter a private home by invitation.

Click on the link for a complete list of pueblo etiquette.

Dances start around 10am in most cases (except Christmas Eve)  and continue to mid-afternoon with some breaks. These are approximate times; these sacred rituals have their own time frame. They start when they start and they finish when they finish. You are free come and go as you please. Dances may change from year to year as may the pueblos holding them. Check with the pueblo in advance.

Author’s note: If you visit at another time of year and are interested in seeing pueblo dances, check the schedule. for dances that are held on feast days and other occasions. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque has dances on weekends.

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8 Responses to “Christmas dances at Northern New Mexico Pueblos”

  1. LeslieTravel
    December 22, 2019 at 1:09 pm #

    I’d love to see a performance of a pueblo dance. Looks interesting!

  2. Matthew Martinez
    December 23, 2019 at 10:43 am #

    Although occurring at the same time as many other holiday celebrations, the Turtle Dance at Ohkay Owingeh should not be listed as such nor should it be be named a “performance.” I would also caution your use of Jill Sweet’s book as the venue to interpret dances. Observers can guess all they wish about the dances but perhaps more importantly is to just be and attend with respect, appreciate the beauty and blessings and not focus on the knowing of the ceremonies and rituals. In this practice, Native and non-natives can be part of the larger community and global connections of health and well being…

    • Billie Frank
      December 23, 2019 at 2:34 pm #

      Thank you for the really thoughtful comment. I have made a few changes to the post. I am not a fan of the Sweet book- but there is not much available on the topic. If you have a better resource to recommend, I would greatly appreciate it. I understand what you are saying about observing and being, but I believe people want to know as much as they can about what is going on without crossing the line.

  3. Charles Higgins
    December 24, 2019 at 10:44 am #

    Cool compilation of Santa Fe area peublo dances..


  4. Matthew Martinez
    December 27, 2019 at 8:11 pm #

    There are quite a number of credible sources published that could be of use for your blog.

    As a starter, I suggest referencing the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center:

    “Pueblos of the Rio Grande: A visitor’s Guide” by Daniel Gibson

    The Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council also publishes an annual visitor’s guide that lists short historical descriptions and feast days of each of the northern villages. This was the first Pueblo produced Guidebook that has been published since 1988. All information is cleared by each of the Governors and read for proper content and accuracy. I know recently they have not published as much guides as they did in the past but most are available at hotels, chamber of commerce, etc.

    And, the New Mexico Tourism Division ensures cultural accuracy and maintains close collaborations with each of New Mexico’s tribes:

    hope this helps!!

    Matthew Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh)

  5. Billie Frank
    December 27, 2019 at 8:28 pm #

    Thanks for the information. We want to be as accurate as possible. I know about the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and their pages are actually in the post’s links for the Pueblos that don’t have their own websites. I will get a copy of the Eight Northern Pueblos Guide and read it and I will look for the Gibson book. I will check with the State Tourism folks and see what they have. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  6. mary thomas
    November 21, 2019 at 7:16 pm #

    Have you ever gone to Kewa (S.Dom)? Its huge on Christmas Day

    • Billie Frank
      November 22, 2019 at 9:53 am #

      Thanks for mentioning it. We didn’t include it in the post as it was on the Eight Northern Pueblos. Interestingly, these aren’t coming up on any of the online calendars.

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