Sunday, December 24, 2006

BUS STORY # 16 (Special Christmas Edition 2006: Luminaria Tour)

“This December 24, take a magical ride with the City of Albuquerque and ABQ RIDE on the Luminaria Tour. Enjoy this annual New Mexican tradition without worrying about parking, driving through snow, annoying traffic delays, or wasting gas. Instead, let ABQ RIDE tour you through a twinkling wonderland in Old Town, the festively adorned Albuquerque Country Club, and other hot spots decked out for the holiday.”

This notice has been posted on the buses and on the ABQ RIDE website since after Thanksgiving. Tickets will likely be gone by the 24th. [In fact, tickets were gone on December 8. The city added 520 more seats – thirteen more buses – to the tour. Those tickets were gone in less than a week.] This is one popular event, and a lot of locals take the tour with their out-of-town holiday guests. This is because luminarias are a genuine hecho en nuevo mexico Christmas tradition that will likely impress them as it did us the first time we saw them: this is truly the Land of Enchantment.

My wife and I took the tour with our Boston family one year. We’d each tried driving through these neighborhoods earlier in our lives, and we had learned our lesson. The six bucks a ticket is worth having someone else negotiate the traffic while you sit back and watch and ooh and ahh and visit. So there we were on Christmas Eve at twilight, standing in a UNM stadium parking lot in a switchback line that looked like a giant airport security checkpoint queue, waiting for the bus.

The night was clear and it was see-your-breath cold. That seemed festively seasonal for about 15 minutes. Then we commenced stomping our numb feet and covering our ears with our gloved hands and watching the lines of buses moving into their own lines, disgorging riders at another location across the lot, getting back into line, and moving up to the head of our line where they reloaded. This year, there are five flights. The first leaves at 5:20 p.m., and the next follows 25 minutes later. I have no idea how many buses make up a flight. A lot.

Our driver wore a red Santa hat and was still in a good mood. We pulled out and headed west. We laughed when we saw our APD motorcycle escorts. The cops were dressed in full Santa regalia, and their motorcycles were decked out in blinking Christmas lights. It was dark when we pulled into the first neighborhood luminaria display.

Some of you outer forty-niners may be asking what in the world is a “luminaria.” Well, it’s an adaptation of a Christmas tradition that came out of the seventeenth century little Spanish villages in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. On Christmas Eve, the villagers set up little stacks of pitch-smeared pinon and juniper and lit them at twilight. These little bonfires were called farolitos, and they were arranged so that the Holy Family could find its way to the front doors of the village church and a clean, well-lighted place for giving birth. I’ve gotta confess, I’ve imagined Santa in his sleigh looking down at such an arrangement and mistaking them for landing lights.

There are lots of versions of how little bonfires became paper lanterns, but somewhere along the line, in the transition from tiny mountain villages to towns and cities with neighborhoods, the luminaria emerged: a brown, lunch-size paper bag with the top edges turned down an inch or two, with a good spadeful of sand for ballast, and a votive candle placed inside the bag, on top of the sand.

Of course, these no longer lead to the neighborhood church. Nowadays, luminarias line curbs and sidewalks, wind up driveways and walkways to front doors. Sometimes they’re arranged along the tops of walls or porch railings or even along the edges of the traditional flat roofline. Occasionally, someone will arrange them as symbols in a front yard – a cross, a zia, and so forth.

Which marks yet another transition: the movement away from a religious tradition for one special night to a secular tradition for a holiday season. I’ve seen homes with luminaria displays for each of the seven days before Christmas, for Christmas night, and for New Year’s as well. But the huge majority of the folks here still confine their displays to the traditional Christmas Eve. Throughout the city, you’ll find one house or several in any given block still maintaining the tradition. Fortunately, there are still whole neighborhoods that mobilize to put out luminarias on Christmas Eve. These are magical.

I suppose you could make a case for attributing these transitions – from religious to secular, from the village church to the home -- to the coming of the Anglos. But one thing is certain: Anglos brought electric lights, and the fusion of the cultures is seen in the way luminarias and traditional American Christmas lights coexist, not just in the same neighborhoods, but often at the same house.

One egregious, increasingly popular fusion is the electric luminaria. Picture a string of light bulb stands over which are placed brown-colored plastic sack-like envelopes. What you cannot picture unless you’ve seen it is the real luminarias’ softly flickering patterns cast by votive flames inside brown paper. Many businesses have adopted the electric version as their nod to both the season and the state. But where homes and Christmas Eve are concerned, the electric luminaria is to Christmas as Taco Bell is to Mexican food. But, like Taco Bell, they’re quick, easy, and are ready when you are. Así es la vida.

Pulling into the country club area, we saw another fusion, but this one worked since it’s a play of one popular New Mexican tradition off another. Out on the golf course, several hot air balloons were inflated and tethered, and the pilots were flaring the gigantic envelopes one after another and back again. Giant glowing luminarias!

Over on the West Side, we pulled into a new neighborhood. Except for a lavish display of luminarias, there wasn’t another light anywhere in sight – no doorway lights, no windows edged with inside lighting, not even a streetlight. It was all luminarias flickering in the dark, and it was breathtaking. The traffic, as is the custom, drove through the quaintly winding streets with parking lights only, and some turned those off as well as we crept very slowly through these empty, silent night streets.

The homes were large and were what I call high-end Santa Fe style. I’m making an assumption here, but I’ve cast this as an Anglo neighborhood, and I’d wager all non-natives to boot. The Anglo part is easy: the architectural lines and decorative details are an Anglo fantasia upon a theme by Taos pueblo. The non-native part I derive from the exact replication of the concept of what the original old tradition must have been like (no electric lights). This is the kind of supercultural adaptation often found among first-generation immigrants.

The next neighborhood was an incredible contrast. Straight rows of little box houses exploding with lights, colors, music, people – Latino people, and lots of them. If there were luminarias, I didn’t see them amid the extravagant arrays of electric lights. There were big-bulbed, multi-colored house trim strings, lacy chains of icicle lights, and those shrubbery-covering nets of tiny, blinking white lights. But they almost got lost in the big displays: giant Santas and sleighs and reindeers, nativity scenes, angels and Christmas trees, and a great spinning pinwheel.

There were low riders decked out with Christmas running lights parked curbside with knots of young folk gathered around. One front porch featured three teenagers, two girls and a boy in the center linked arm in arm, the girls in short, fur-trimmed skirts and white marching band boots, high-kicking in unison to some familiar traditional Christmas music. “Hey,” my wife exclaimed, “that’s Gladys Knight and the Pips!” She meant the music. There was a concentration of neighbors at one house, folks visiting on the porch and coming and going through the front door, and you just knew inside, in the kitchen, was a huge pot of posole, and plates stacked high with homemade tamales and biscochitos. The Anglos may have been good for the lights and the music, but the food – that stays traditional!

I think of the two neighborhoods as the children of two parents, one Anglo and one Nuevo Mexicano. The children are separate and distinct from one another, yet wholly a mix of the same two, great parents. The Luminaria Tour has given me yet another way of seeing and celebrating where and with whom I live. And here at Christmas, it’s good to be visiting with the whole family.

As we say here in New Mexico, “Feliz Navidad.”


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