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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

A holiday blend: Pueblo Indian Christmas

December 21, 2012

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Every year, for more than 30 years, our family entered the world of Pueblo Christmas, unlike any that other Americans celebrated. At San Felipe Pueblo, a short distance north of our home in Albuquerque, we joined our Pueblo friends in their unique celebration. While many Americans blend family traditions in their modern families, the Pueblos have done this for centuries. The Spaniards “converted” the Pueblos in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They forbade any Native religions for several decades, but after a violent Pueblo revolt, they stepped back and the Pueblos were able to bring back their Native practices in the context of Catholicism.

Those Native ways often overpower the Christian ones, beginning on Christmas Eve. In the small mission church of San Felipe, midnight mass ends, the priest leaves. And then the first of the Native dancers enters the church, almost to remind everyone just who is in charge here. They dance out of the church, and everyone goes home to prepare for the next four days of dancing and feasting.

The Christmas ceremonials last from about 10 a.m. until mid-afternoon, with short breaks and a longer one for lunch, and are overwhelmingly Native. They bind the people in ritual and in time. The participants, all members of the Pueblo, stroll into the plaza and line the plaza’s perimeter, with the chorus to the side. Attentive to the drum, hundreds of singers and dancers become one, as they circle the plaza several times, directed by cues from the singers and drums. The square’s dirt floor is depressed about three feet below the buildings around its edge, the result, say the residents, of so many dancers’ feet pounding it. Children enter the ceremonial life of the pueblo at an early age as both dancers and singers. They dance with older family members or at the end of the line of adults or sing with the all-male chorus. Some of the children are barely old enough to walk, and they sway valiantly under the weight of elaborate regalia sized for them.

The celebrants’ elaborate regalia show how the Pueblo Christmas dances also invite individual effort. Men paint their bodies and wear white kilts cinched with embroidered belts, pin feathers to their heads, and carry ceremonial rattles. The women fasten their traditional one-shouldered black dresses — called mantas — with silver pins at the shoulder and with elaborately woven belts. Tablitas — thin decorated head boards — hold the women's hair in place. All carry an evergreen branch. Despite their similarities, the regalia are highly personal; dancers often make their own and add individual flourishes. Participants bring out their finest jewelry, some of which has passed through generations.

The music is irresistible, insinuating, with an insistent beat from the drums. The dancers’ rattles and jingle anklets provide a delicate counterpoint to the drums’ pounding. Singing in Keresan, the San Felipe language, the chorus provides the textual framework for the dancers’ movements. Multiple sounds at different pitches rebound off a nearby rocky mesa to produce an orchestral texture.

For the feast, Pueblo women cook for days, and the food simmering in large pots calls to us with a sweet and pungent scent. The women bake dozens of loaves of crusty bread at a time in ornos, outdoor beehive-shaped ovens. The kitchen table is permanently set with bowls of pinto beans and stews swimming in red or green chile. Vegetable salads, rounds of fry bread a foot in diameter, thick slices of baked bread, and pitchers of non-alcoholic drinks join the hearty dishes on the table. Family members, some in their ceremonial dress, mingle with guests.

We eat at the kitchen table, which can seat 10 to 12, and dozens of people squeeze around the table in shifts. Guests are first, then dancers. I once told Marie I admired how she and the other women are able to organize a continual feast during these celebrations. “As long as we help each other, it’s OK,” she answered. Her comment defines the strength of San Felipe’s life, even in the face of difficult circumstances. This is what Pueblo Christmas is about and what ours should be about.