Sunday, December 30, 2007

Pueblo Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve, I was privileged to attend midnight Mass at the San José Mission Church at the Laguna Pueblo, about 100 miles southwest of Santa Fe. The church was built in 1699 and is a beautifully-preserved gem. When the Indians drove the Spanish out of the New Mexico territory in 1680, they burned the churches erected by the invaders. So this was one of the first mission churches built when the Spanish returned in 1692. The photograph above, courtesy of the New Mexico Department of Tourism, shows the striking white church against the late afternoon sky.

Upon our arrival, a little before 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the rooflines, tops of the walls, etc. were filled with farolitos--brown paper lunch bags with sand and votive candles inside, the flames flickering in the cold night air. [1] We weren't allowed to take photographs anywhere on Pueblo lands, so here is a Santa Fe photo that shows what the farolitos looked like--you'll have to image them superimposed on the church image! [2]

We had been told that we would be invited to enter the church at 9:55 p.m., after all the Pueblo parishioners were seated, and that we might have to stand, and we might be outside. We were all long-underweared for the occasion, but when the priest came out to invite us in we found that they had generously saved seats for our group.

It is hard to do justice to the interior of the church without photographs. It is quite small, probably seating about 125-150. The interior walls are adobe with centuries of whitewash rendering them creamy and soft-angled. The ceiling features exposed, closely-positioned, hand-carved beams (known as vigas). There are no windows that I recall, except for one big one in the choir loft (visible in the photo in the front of the church). The stations of the cross adorn the walls as they do in most Catholic churches. Old wooden pews are arranged on the hardened mud and straw floor. Running above the pews and below the stations is a continuous border, larger than the small, wooden stations, painted in an Indian pattern in reds, taupes, golds, and other earth colors.

Behind the altar is a huge image of San José (St. Joseph, Jesus' stepfather) holding the infant Jesus. It's flanked by rough-carved turned columns with the turnings alternately painted red and green. The tabernacle is covered with a wooden board, hand-painted in a folk-art style--also in red and green. Below the altar is the Christmas creche.

The altar linens are white with red and green Indian embroidery all around the edges. The chalices and communion bread bowls are Laguna pottery, primarily white with a red and black design, similar to that in the photo below. [3]

All around the church are small figures of saints painted and dressed as either Pueblo or Colonial Spanish figures. The Virgin of Guadalupe is featured one large panel.

The Catholic Mass was like Catholic Mass in most US churches, but the beautiful, ancient setting made it a unique experience. While the (Anglo) priest used a brass censer for the burning incense, he used a Pueblo pottery bowl with a small branch of evergreen to disperse holy water. Also unique was the end of the sermon where the priest talked about the fact that Catholics still accepted and listened to the Old Testament, while celebrating the New Testament, and that Pueblo Indians still accepted and practiced their old traditional ways while practicing Catholicism. (Which, if you're counting, they have been practicing, in one way or another for 400 years--it's hard to consider them newcomers to the religion!)

At the end of Mass, the choir sang Feliz Navidad (OK--that's Pueblo culture, Hispanic culture, modern Western culture, and rock'n roll--all at once....). Then the priest came down from the altar and asked that all the able-bodied men (and any able-bodied women who wanted to volunteer) move the pews from the right side of the church out into the courtyard.

At about 11:30 p.m. the drummers entered the church and the ceremonial dancing started. We stayed for about an hour and a half; dancing was still going on when we left. Pueblo holiday dances (at Laguna, and at Jemez and Santa Ana on Christmas Day) will get their own post on this site in a few days.

Illustration Credits and References

[1] The Spanish word farolito means "little lantern". Originally, these lanterns were brought by the Spanish from the Philippines, but the flimsy paper didn't survive well in this climate. When the paper bag was invented in the Boston area, and brought to Santa Fe in the 19th century via the Santa Fe Trail, the locals adopted them for the farolito displays, and a new tradition was born. (These lanterns, for some reason, are referred to as luminarias in the rest of the state--e.g. in Albuquerque. Santa Feans use that term to describe the little bonfires that are also part of the local Christmas tradition.)

[2] Photo courtesy of Martin Wright's Santa Fe Real Estate site.

[3] This photograph is courtesy of the Frank H. McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee, from a 1997 exhibit entitled Singing the Clay. According to the exhibit catalog, "one potentially distinguishing characteristic of Laguna pottery is the use of comparatively large painted designs that interlock and completely encircle the vessel."

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