Friday, 04 December 2015 01:21

Christmas in Peña Blanca, 1938. Amelia Montoya Andrews

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Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Peña Blanca, NM Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Peña Blanca, NM

I write of Christmas 1938, the last year my father was alive. He loved these occasions. The Christmas tree, a beautiful, well-shaped blue spruce, was selected early in the year on one of his horseback trips to tend to his cattle at the Valle Grande (now Valle Caldera). Just before Christmas, he would make another horseback trip to bring the selected tree.

The December celebrations started with preparations for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Peña Blanca. The mayordomos, two couples from the parish, had the honor of overseeing the celebration. White-washing the interior church walls, organizing parishioners to bring piñon trees to line the area of the procession for the vespers, and preparing the luminarias which would be lit and burned on the evening of December 11. Luminarias were made from piñon wood which would have lots of pitch to burn brightly. A luminaria is a formation of interwoven piñon logs and to purists like me, the only luminaria. The candle in a paper sack is a faralito. On the evening of December 11, there was a procession with the parishioners singing the Rosary, as well as other prayers. Little girls in their white First Communion dresses carried the Blessed Virgin Mary’s banner. Older women carried the banner of the Sacred Heart. At this time in Peña Blanca, there were still old ladies wearing long black dresses down to the floor and a tapalo (shawl) on their heads, not unlike what we now see in pictures from the Middle East.

The church functions were followed by a dance. Everyone wore their finery. We would estrenar our winter coats, and the soot from the luminarias could be catastrophic on a light-colored coat. Estrenar means first use of something, be it clothes or other objects, and there does not seem to be an English equivalent. The following day, a high mass was held. Franciscan priests from Cuba, Gallup, and Santa Fe came to celebrate. After the church function, a fiesta followed at the home of the mayordomos.

After the Fiesta of the Patroness, came the novena in preparation for Christmas. For some reason, unknown to me, these nine masses were held at 6:00 a.m. in the dead of winter. We walked in pitch darkness in bitter cold weather to the church for mass. (I hope St. Peter will take note of this when he marks down the Sundays I have missed mass.) At school, we had Christmas plays, ending with a visit from Santa Claus who gave us each a paper sack with peanuts, candy, and an orange.

The winter solstice marked the Ember Days—days of fasting and abstinence. With the cold, it was a time to butcher a yearling. According to my mother, her Tio (uncle) Amado Baca would say, “Cuando el pobre ya tiene carne siempre se atravieza La vigilia.(When the poor man finally has meat, along come the Ember Days). It never failed.

Butchering was only one of the preparations. There was also baking of biscochitos and candy-making. Empanaditas and tamales were made the day before Christmas. Making tamales entailed soaking the white corn in a lime solution, then it required many rinsings before grinding the corn for the masa. The masa was then beaten very well until a sample of it would float in water. Boiling and shredding a pork roast was next. Then the red chile sauce was added and the tamale could be assembled in cornhusks which had been soaking. There is little wonder that this was the only time of year that we had tamales. Chaquewe was another thing. It was much easier to make and the results were not too different.

The meat concoction for the empanadas (probably a cooked beef tongue) had been prepared with raisins, chopped apples, piñon nuts, whiskey or wine, and aged for a few days. The pastry is similar to a sopapilla. The empanadas were stuffed and deep fat fried on Christmas Eve, so they would be fresh.

Rural electrification came early to New Mexico compared to other parts of the country. Governor Clyde Tingley was a political supporter and friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, so New Mexico profited from the New Deal projects early. In December of 1938, we were hoping that the installation of electricity would be completed, and it was. My older sisters Elda and Margaret had brought us Christmas tree decorations. There is no comparison between the beautiful General Electric decorations of those years with the lights we have today. The lights were blue, about one-and-a-half inches long, and shaped like bells and stars. We had a blue tree for many years as those lights lasted twenty or thirty years. While my mother baked, Fita—one of my older sisters—decorated the tree. After the tinsel and icicles came a covering of “angel’s hair.” This was a spun glass covering. This decoration was removed from the market quickly, perhaps because it could cut and was very irritating to the skin. We would try to peek through the keyhole into the room where the tree was, but we were not allowed to see the tree until we returned from midnight mass (La misa del gallo). The nativity scene at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was, and still is, especially beautiful. The manger was lined in piñon boughs. The nativity set had been purchased with funds donated by the students, also with bingo games and raffles and, like our tree at home, it was not put up until Christmas Eve.

Immediately after mass, we opened our gifts. By 1938, the depression was receding and we received dolls. In previous years, we received paper dolls and were just as delighted with them. After opening gifts, we had tamales, empanaditas, and coffee.

Early in the morning on Christmas day, less fortunate children came to beg for “Mis Crismas,” much like children go from house to house for trick-or-treating at Halloween. The children were given peanuts, nuts, and candy.

Our Christmas dinner was roast beef and my sister Celina made fruit cake. In the evening, we went to see the lights in Madrid in Elda’s car. My sister had recently completed her education as a public health nurse and had purchased a new car. Our family had never had a vehicle other than a caraje (carriage) and wagon.

Madrid, a mining town, assessed the miners a fee from their monthly wages and used volunteer help to put on a spectacular display at Christmas that was famous far and wide. We had never previously been able to see it.

During the Christmas vacation, every evening, my mother would come out with her cache of goodies. She hid the candy, peanuts, and nuts in her square sewing machine cabinet. She thought no one knew where they were. Each night, she doled out a handful of these goodies. The candy had to last through January 6.

The Feast of the Epiphany was the end of the Christmas season. We had early dismissal of school, and we would go to Santo Domingo Pueblo. At each home, in the pueblo, where someone was named Ray or Reyes, the family celebrated their Saint’s Day by throwing gifts from the rooftops to the crowd. The gifts might be a loaf of bread wrapped in muslin, or a pretty printed material from a flour sack, or candy, or, if you were lucky, one of the squares of cloth might have a turquoise ring.

Our Christmas tree was up for several weeks after Epiphany, perhaps my mother kept it up until the beginning of Lent.

This article’s author, Amelia Montoya Andrews, is a member of the Sandoval County Historical Society and contributor to their quarterly publication El Cronicón.

Read 4771 times Last modified on Friday, 04 December 2015 01:28
Mike Lord

4th generation Santa Fe Gringo.

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