Silent Night, Holy Night

Tires crunched through the snow as the SUV inched along the deserted, unmaintained dirt road.  Slowly, tediously, it negotiated the frozen ruts, and when the road finally ended abruptly in a large semi-circular open area, inched gingerly into what appeared to be a parking space.

But appearances could be deceiving in this land, so far from the forced order of civilization where there was a place for everything, and everything in its place.  The steaming engine sighed and  clanked to a stop, and after a moment’s hesitation the doors opened, releasing two passengers into the snowy, empty and completely silent landscape.

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Mosaic at El Santuario de Chimayo

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” my husband asked delicately, after a brief pause during which we took a collective moment to catch our breath and acclimate to the frigid air surrounding us. The cold wind, gentle yet insistent, was alive — creeping with icy tendrils into any unguarded crack or seam in our multiple layers of warm winter clothing. “I mean, I’m not saying you don’t know where we’re going, but there’s nobody else here ~ maybe we should keep driving  and see if there are any parked cars further up? Maybe that guy at Chimayo didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Earlier that day, we had stopped at El Santuario de Chimayo, a small Roman Catholic church in the Sangre de Cristo (‘Blood of Christ’) Mountains between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. The ‘Santuario’, or shrine, built in the early 1800s, is known as the ‘Lourdes of the Americas’ because of various miracles reportedly connected to it and, more specifically, the sacred dirt found in a small hole in a little room off the sanctuary.

After filling a plastic baggie with sacred dirt and lingering for a good twenty minutes over the rows of crutches, casts and pictures covering almost every inch of the walls inside, we had accosted another tourist and asked him to take our photo in front of the Santuario.  During the friendly conversation that ensued, we mentioned that we were hoping to find a place to attend Christmas Eve mass that night in Taos, our next destination. Without hesitation, he excitedly exclaimed that we should attend Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo.

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Snapshot of us in front of El Santuario de Chimayo

Taos Pueblo, traditionally known as ‘Tuah-tah’, is one of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos clustered along the banks of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande; villages of the modern Puebloan people who are believed to be descendants of the ancient Anasazi, a culture now more commonly referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans.  These peaceful farmers had never seen a European face until the Spanish descended upon their villages in 1540, forcing all of the inhabitants to convert to Catholicism.

Due to an ingenious adaptability (perhaps stemming from their peaceful nature) the Puebloan people adopted the forced religion while at the same time managing to retain most of their traditional ceremonies, opting to practice one ‘religion’ alongside the other in lieu of choosing between the two.  Despite the survival of the traditional ways, remnants of the Spanish conquest remain: today nearly 90% of the Puebloan people are practicing Catholics, and a Spanish mission still stands near the plaza at each and every Pueblo.

Taos Pueblo
Taos Pueblo

I was familiar with Taos Pueblo’s Christmas festivities and the various ceremonial dances that were open to the public each year, and knew of San Geronimo, the mission church at Taos Pueblo.  The chance to experience Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo was an opportunity I was not going to pass up.  So here we were on Christmas Eve, just before midnight, in the middle of nowhere; and by the look of it, completely alone in this frozen New Mexico night.

“No,” I replied to my husband, “the guy at Chimayo knew what he was talking about and I know the church is over that way. We came all this way, let’s at least check it out.”

As we approached the Pueblo, one of the oldest continually-inhabited communities in the United States, I thought about how much life it had witnessed over ten centuries’ time.  I marveled that a village built while Europe was still entrenched in the Middle Ages had remained, intact, to this day.  In fact, remarkably little had changed here in the last thousand years; the people who called the Pueblo home still walked in the path of their ancestors each and every day and Taos Mountain, with its holy Blue Lake, watched perpetually over them from its home in the East.

San Geronimo Church Taos
San Geronimo Mission

I took my husband’s hand as we ducked through an opening in the low wall that surrounded the Pueblo and made our way towards the back of the little church, poised humbly on the edge of the plaza.  We crept around the side of the church, flecks of straw in the ancient caramel-colored adobe walls glinting eerily in the dark night.  Crunch, crunch, crunch…our heavy boots methodically covered ground but it was slow going with all the ice, snow and total darkness.

There is no electricity at Taos Pueblo, and the night possessed a mysterious depth I have not experienced anywhere else.  Tipping my head back, I was dazzled by millions of stars, so thick they were practically dripping from the sky in a mind-boggling three-dimensional display.  In the distance, sacred Taos Mountain stood guard over the pueblo; although it was too dark to see it, I could feel its  presence – brooding and silent – at home and alive in the inky darkness.

The church, San Geronimo Mission, was named after St. Jerome, the patron saint of Taos Pueblo, and was originally built by the Spanish in 1619.  Destroyed when the Puebloans rose up against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, it was soon rebuilt on the same site – only to be destroyed once again in 1847 by the U.S. Army during the Mexican- American war.  In 1850 the present-day church was erected near the site of the old church, where it still stands.  Its freshly-whitewashed adobe walls a startling contrast to the hollow ruins of the old mission.  Tonight it stood in darkness reflecting only the dark night sky…cloaked in its thick mud walls, and seemingly unconcerned about the weary travelers outside.

Old Church at Taos
The old mission at Taos

We rounded the corner of the church and it was as if someone suddenly turned on the volume. The faint sound of muffled voices wafted from the front door, and as we approached a glowing light shone softly out, mingling with the scent of incense as it welcomed us, beckoning us closer.  We were ushered quietly into the church and it was as if we had been transported back in time.

The thick, musky-yet-pleasant smell of incense and smoke from the candles, their dim, flickering, golden light, the closeness of the people crowded shoulder to shoulder in the rough wooden pews, the smooth adobe walls that enclosed us – and above all the feeling of community sacredness – presented an air of mystery and timelessness.  It’s almost dreamlike in my memory.

Shuffling into the back row, we stood in humble regard through the short yet moving service.  The gentle chanting voice of the priest alternated with voices raised in song.  A feeling of enchantment permeated the small room, and I melded into my surroundings and became a part of the otherworldly atmosphere.  The quiet majesty of the scene before me, the beauty inside this small and unassuming mission church in the middle of an ancient Pueblo, was an unexpected treasure and I took it in with moist eyes and a thankful heart.

When the service ended, we left the church in silence, both lost in our own thoughts. As we stepped over the threshold and into the frigid dark night, the spell was broken and we were brought abruptly back into the present – to the stars and the snow and the sacred mountain before us.  Everything remained exactly as it had been before; as it had been for over a thousand years.

But something inside me had changed; I had been transfixed and transformed by the beautiful experience.  The stars glittered and winked knowingly in  the velvet sky as we silently made our way back to the car.

Related Posts:
Green Chile & Luminarias Day 1: Dreamcatchers & Black Ice
Green Chile & Luminarias Day 2: Albuquerque
New Mexico Posole

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