In the long years between my first visit to #NewMexico and moving here, subscriptions to New Mexico Magazine helped keep my dream of living here alive. Photos of farolitos filling the December issues always inflamed that passion, and I dreamed of walking Canyon Road on Christmas Eve.
When I moved here a few days before Christmas in 2001, I waited eagerly for that night. I heeded warnings I got about how cold it would be and bundled up as I would have for an outdoor winter excursion in my childhood home of Michigan. I quickly realized that New Mexicans’ concept of cold was worlds apart from mine, but I sweated my way through the first of many magical Canyon Road Farolito Walks, completely entranced with the “little lanterns” and experiencing countless moments of wonder and delight along the way.
Just as childhood memories of Christmas are imprinted on our consciousness, memories of that first #CanyonRoadFarolitoWalk are imprinted on mine, a phenomenon that many Santa Feans and visitors can relate to. Something as simple as a whiff of piñon smoke may stir images of farolitos lining adobe walls or of warming yourself at a luminaria sipping warm cider. The intense delight of first experience may be blunted over time, but for many of us, this becomes a beloved holiday tradition.
In her article “Santa Fe in the Twenties,” Ruth Laughlin recounted a conversation with Alice Corbin Henderson, founder of Santa Fe’s early 20th century writer’s colony. “Years ago you told me that only the newcomer should write of the Southwest. You said that first impressions were clear, vivid and exciting, but that after six months the scene became too familiar and lost its sharp focus.”
“I’ve changed my time limit on that,” she laughed, “though the memory of my first Christmas in Santa Fe is so vivid that I can almost feel the crisp, cold air now.”
Although many of us, like Corbin Henderson, retain vivid memories of their first Santa Fe Christmas, that Canyon Road tradition can lose its appeal for some who’ve become “too familiar” or who have watched it change over time. Crowds continue to swell, fewer gallery owners open their doors and some even fail to light farolitos. One long-time resident bemoaned the “Mardi Gras atmosphere” that has replaced the quiet enjoyment of earlier years.
Yet for others like myself this #SantaFe tradition has an allure that surpasses all those disappointments. Although I may never again experience the excitement of that first #farolito walk, and every year I question my sanity for immersing myself in that seething river of humanity, there is a magic in that promenade that brings me back again and again. It’s as though Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present sprinkles an incense from his torch that awakens mystery in the midst of chaos.
Karan Ruhlen, former owner of Karan Ruhlen Gallery on Canyon Road, once told me, “It has a lot to do with community. The Canyon Road event is about friends and family taking the time get together to share this tradition.” That sense of community, so often lacking in our lives, is one thing that brings people back year after year.
Yet for those who hate crowds, so much community may feel overwhelming. I am usually on the verge of fleeing for my car when the magic happens. The moment I see lights gilding the trees and the warm glow of farolitos I feel like a six-year-old child eagerly expecting Christmas miracles. The scents of piñon smoke and spiced apple cider drifting in the “crisp, cold air” are delicious. Luminarias (little fires) attract carolers, strains of classical guitar or soothing jazz float through the night. Revelers crowned with reindeer antlers or diadems of Christmas lights thread through the strollers. Farolito hot air balloons soar through the starry night. The scene rivals the bustle and excitement of those Victorian Christmas Eves Dickens’ depicted so well.
Yet there is something about the radiance from those simple paper bags that brings serenity even in the midst of all this bustle. The 18th century adobe walls seem to dream in their glow and the crowd is remarkably hushed for its size.
Each year I take home some little treasure to add to my store of farolito reminiscences. One year it’s finding a quiet eddy in a side alley and singing Christmas carols by a luminaria. Another year I discover the source of those “hot air balloons” and watch people sending those little bits of joy into the night.
Despite its flaws, the farolito walk is truly a gift. Nowhere else in the United States have I found an event that so evokes the spirit of Christmas. The experience of this celebration can deepen and grow through the years, weaving a magnificent tapestry of memories that will warm the winter nights for years to come.
Excerpt from Ruth Laughlin from “Santa Fe in the Twenties”, New Mexico Quarterly Review19 (1949): 58-66tings.