One of the greatest cultural resources in New Mexico are the Pueblos,have been home to indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. All but one of theEight Northern Pueblos are within an hour’s drive of Santa Fe. Taos is a little further.
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 dances during the Christmas holiday season. If you go, it is important to follow Pueblo etiquette for these religious ceremonies.
Over the Christmas holiday season, the following Pueblo dances are performed:
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 Pueblos. 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 Rainbow Dance, according to anthropologist, Jill Sweet in her book, Dances of the Tewa Pueblo Indians, has something to do with rain and agricultural success. It is danced by both men and women accompanied by a single drum and a male chorus.
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 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- Los Matachines bonfires lit at sundown
Picuris– Los Matachines arrive starting late afternoon
Tesuque holds the Rainbow Dance at midnight.
Taos Pueblo On Christmas Eve Day, there are Children’s Dances at the Pueblo starting mid-morning. 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: 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.)
December 26th :
Santa Clara– Hopi Buffalo Dance. There’s a connection between the Hopis and Santa Clara Pueblo. Although they are not related, many Tewa people went to live among the Hopis after the Spanish arrived. There has also been intermarriage between the two groups.
December 28th, St. Innocent’s Day- children’s dances at Picarus and Santa Clara Pueblos
These dances are part of each pueblo’s devout spiritual practice and are religious ceremonies. It is a privilege to attend, and an honor to be allowed to share the ceremonies that are deeply central to their lives. If you go, it is important to follow proper Pueblo etiquette.
Dances start around 10 a.m. in most cases (except Christmas Eve when the dances are at night) and continue to mid-afternoon with some breaks. This is an approximate time; the 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. They are held other times during the year. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque has dances on weekends.