Christmas in the Southwest is a special time. While we may not have much in the way of snow, we make up for it with Christmas spirit. Just because we may not need knit scarves and gloves on the way to grandma's house, that doesn't mean we still don't feel the cool, crisp Christmas chill in the air.
There's a variety of Southwestern Christmas traditions we still carry out to this day. One prominent tradition is the hanging of ristras. While ristras are, traditionally, a means to dry and store chile peppers, garlic or other vegetables to use later in the year, they've taken hold throughout the American Southwest as a common decorative item during the holiday season.
Why The Southwest Hangs Ristras For the Holidays
They're found adorning doorways and hanging from fences all-year round, and around Christmas, expect to see more than a few decked with both red and green peppers - or arranged as pequin wreaths! Ristras are also thought to bring health and good luck.
If you're from the Albuquerque or Santa Fe area, then you're no stranger to chili pepper ristras. New Mexico residents most likely pick up their chile ristras or chili piquin wreaths from their local farmer's market, but if you're a Southerner looking for your first ristra, you can get one on Amazon for only $39.95.
I'm sure your Amazon shopping cart is full of Christmas decorations, but if you're looking to tap into your Southwestern roots, I highly recommend showing off your chile ristra. I don't know about you, but all of this chile talk is making me crave red chile sauce and Mexican cuisine. If you're not sure what you can do with those red peppers or jalapeños sitting in the kitchen, check out this guide for tips on how to use peppers.
Additional Southwestern Christmas Traditions We Love
New Mexico's official state cookie, the biscochito (or bizcochito, even sometimes biscocho/bizcocho), is by no means relegated to Christmas; you can find them year-round, just about anywhere.
However, these crisp, buttery cookies, given just the right amount of spice with flavors of anise and cinnamon, are a staple sweet no Southwestern Christmas is complete without. Here's a traditional recipe to get you started.
It seems no holiday meal in the Southwest - Thanksgiving, Christmas or otherwise - finishes without tamales on the table. A traditional dish throughout much of the Americas, tamales are made with masa (or dough) and a variety of fillings - cheese, meat, fruit or vegetables are common - wrapped in corn husk and steamed.
Making tamales the right way is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, making it perfect for the holidays, when family and friends can be easily recruited to help lend a set of hands! Get the recipe for classic pork tamales and get wrapping!
Empanadas - from the Spanish, "to wrap in bread" - are flaky, delicious, hand-held pastries stuffed with filling. While they can be made with savories like meat or veggies, around the holidays in the Southwest (and especially New Mexico), expect plenty of apple, cherry and pumpkin empanadas to be passed your way.
Here are a few recipes to get you started!
Despite hotly contested debate over the "proper" name - farolito ("little lantern") vs. luminaria ("festival light") - these festive holiday lanterns are guaranteed to brighten any Southwestern Christmas. Small paper bags are weighted down with sand, and a tea light is placed inside. Luminarias have for centuries in New Mexico lighted the way along paths to the local church, symbolically lighting the way for the Holy Family.
Today, the tradition has spread way and wide, from California to Maine. The sight of hundreds of them glowing along walkways, eaves and pathways is a holiday sight you'll not soon forget.
5. Christmas Chile
Very little is up for more debate in the Land of Enchantment than our chile. Folks in New Mexico are fiercely proud of their signature crop, so much so that the official state question is "red chile or green chile?"; that is, would you like your chile red, or green?
One option for those on the fence (and how could you not be?) is to order your food "Christmas" style - half red, half green, all delicious. Some die-hards may balk, but let them - you're getting the best of both worlds.
6. Roasted Piñon Coffee
You can keep your chestnuts; in the Southwest, we roast piñons (pine nuts) on an open fire. Piñon coffee has been called "the coffee that fuels New Mexico," and it's unlike any other ordinary cuppa Joe you've ever had.
7. Las Posadas/Los Pastores
Around the holidays, many regions with large Mexican-American and Catholic populations observe the holiday by reenacting Los Pastores and Las Posadas.
Los Pastores ("the pastors") is a popular Mexican nativity play. This community play tells of the Incarnation of the lord, the coming of the shepherds and kings.
Community members are usually asked to take on the roles - St. Joseph, The Blessed Virgin, the Infant, the Three Kings, a good angel and a bad angel - and, following the play, community members and actors sing, dance and feast together.
Las Posadas ("the inns") is actually a Christmas novena, a special form of worship that takes place over the course of nine days. During Las Posadas, which begins on Dec. 16, nine homes and families are selected to serve as the posadas, or inns. Each night for nine nights (ending on Christmas Eve), the families form a procession, stopping at each of the nine inns. Along the way, they carry candles and sing the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem.
On the first eight nights, the family of the "inn" has to turn away the procession, as there is no lodging - though not before the procession takes a tour of the rooms, in song. On the final night, however, they are welcomed into the home where a Christmas crib and manger has been set up, often along with plenty of refreshments for the weary travelers.
8. Christmas Lights on Cacti
Sure, we may have a good old-fashioned Christmas tree indoors like the rest of you, but true Southwesterners go all out, and they certainly aren't going to let a few stickers stop them.
It's a common sight around the holidays to see saguaros, prickly pear, yucca, ocotillo - heck, even tumbleweeds - decked very carefully with twinkling lights.
9. Barbed-Wire Wreaths
The Southwest's rich agricultural history comes together with Christmas tradition in this truly Texas decoration, spotted all over during the holidays.
This post was originally published on December 14, 2017.