New Mexico has a long and storied history. Only becoming a state in 1912, its association with the United States is but a blip in the timeline of this enchanted land. In fact, prior to annexation of New Mexico by the U.S. in 1846, the area was “ruled” for nearly 300 years by Spain and then Mexico.
But going even further back, let’s say more than 1,000 years, the Red Willow people of Taos Pueblo have called this place at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains home. The main part of the present buildings in the Pueblo Plaza look much the same when the Spanish first arrived in Northern New Mexico in 1540. The fact that people still live in the large dwelling makes it the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. The land base is 99,000 acres with an elevation of 7,200 feet at the village.
In 1992, Taos Pueblo was admitted to the Heritage Society as one of the most significant historical cultural landmarks in the world making it a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark— alongside other notable places such as the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon. It is the only Native American community with both designations. Taos Pueblo’s rich cultural history makes for a memorable visit and is just a mile north of the town of Taos off Paseo del Pueblo Norte.
It is no surprise that tradition and heritage are the cornerstones of activities in all seasons at Taos Pueblo. From private rites of Pueblo members to more public traditions, such as the Christmas Eve procession, there is always a sense of history that predates any colonial associations with this great land. For most visitors, the main winter attractions at Taos Pueblo are the ceremonial holiday traditions.
Unchanged and unmatched in wonder and drama, Taos Pueblo holds the Procession of the Virgin Mary celebration where friends, relatives and visitors gather in the Pueblo Plaza around towering luminarias in anticipation of the annual tradition. The celebration begins around sunset after the 4 p.m. vespers and Communion at San Geronimo Chapel.
The scent of burning ocote wood permeates the dark winter air like incense. Gunshots are heard, as Pueblo men fire hunting rifles toward the stars as part of the tradition of welcoming La Nocha Buena (the good night) and La Navidad (Christmas, the birth of Christ).
Once the riflemen signal the birth of Christ, they part the crowd to allow passage for the procession featuring a statue of the Virgin Mary hoisted high upon a dais. Accompanying the procession are Pueblo drummers, dancers and female singers — singing in English and Tiwa (the native language of the Red Willow people) — as Mary is returned to the church.
Then on Christmas Day, visitors are invited to watch the year’s chosen symbolic Deer or Matachinas Dance around 1 p.m. The meaning behind the dances is consecrated among the Pueblo people, and it’s considered impolite to inquire about it. Photography is strictly prohibited. Any chance of these celebrations being imitated or profited from, are guarded against.
It is hoped that witnesses take away a positive, inspired feeling and a lasting memory in one’s mind and heart as opposed to images. These ceremonial celebrations are sacred to the Red Willow people. Because these are ceremonies, appropriate behavior is appreciated.
For more celebration, the Turtle Dance is held on Jan. 1, typically at dawn. The dance marks the beginning of a new year. As the date approaches, call Taos Pueblo at (575) 758-1028 for exact times.
All of these events are offered free to visitors. All that is asked is that there be no cameras, cell phones or any recording devices.
Be sure to come early, and make your way around this historic place and the many unique shops held within featuring Native-made handcrafted works from jewelry to pottery to paintings. The tribe takes extra care to be certain that all arts and crafts sold are Native-made. All sales are tax-free.
This time of year is one of the most memorable, inspirational and humbling times to experience the rich culture and atmosphere that is this ancient, sacred land of Taos Pueblo — the true caretaker and spiritual center of Taos Valley.
Taos Pueblo is generally open to the public Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., except when tribal rituals or a death require its closure. The Pueblo will be closed for about 10 weeks from late winter to early spring. If you plan to visit within this period, call ahead (575) 758-1028.
Guided tours are available daily starting at 9 a.m., and run every 20 minutes on the hour. Tour guides are typically students and rely on gratuity. For private tours and large groups, contact the tourism office to book a tour at (575) 758-1028.
— Staff report
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sun. 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Adults: $16 per person
Groups (6 or more adults): $14 per person
Students (11 and older, includes college with ID): $14 per person
Children 10 and under: Free
Rules and Regulations:
Please abide by “Restricted Area” signs.
Do not enter doors/homes that are not clearly marked as curio shops.
Do not photograph tribal members without permission.
No photography within San Geronimo Church.
Do not enter the abode walls surrounding the cemetery and old church ruins.
Do not walk in the river.
Do not take photographs on feast days.
Any photography must be for personal use only; all professional, commercial, educational and documentary photography, including artistic renderings, must have prior approval. Fees vary; inquire within tourism office.
Visit taospueblo.com for more information.