Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado have always had a steady stream of folk scholars across the ages. These scholars have acted as beacons and cultural consciences for the settlers in this area. They include names like Aurelio Espinoza of San Luis, Colorado, Fray Angélico Chávez of Wagon Mound and Rubén Cobos of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Add to them a Taos beacon named Don Juan Tenorio, who left us a legacy of handwritten manuscripts of the old seasonal morality plays, which were brought and presented by the first Franciscan friars. They include folk dramas such as Las Posadas, Los Pastores, Los Reyes Magos, Las Cuatro Apariciones de Guadalupe, Los Matachines and Los Manueles.
Yuletide in Northern New Mexico has been a unique experience that redefines how Christmas traditions used to be celebrated here. It begins with the Feast of Lights, known as Santa Lucía Day, on Dec. 13. Santa Lucía ushers in the season and culminates with Candlemas on Feb. 2. Local Yuletide starts with dying of the light and it ends with the return of the light to Earth.
Nestled between those two dates are a plethora of traditions that highlight the season. On the eve of the Feast of Lights, the Christmas Ogres (Los Agüelos) wake up from their yearlong sleep on Dec. 12. Los Agüelos are ancient ancestral spirits who are guardians of tradition. They wend their way down from the mountain caves attracted by the bonfires and farolitos to warm their old bones. They approach the villages cracking their whips and asking if Taoseños remember the ancient ways and prayers. And woe to those who do not know them, for these Christmas ogres may be entertainers, but they are also disciplinarians.
As entertainers, they will join hands around the bonfires to the beat of a drum as they sing: “Bailemos la paloma y el jorundundú; vuelca el atole y verastetú.’ (Let us dance to the rhythm of the dove and the drumbeat; careful not to spill the atole.”) Atole is a cornflower drink.
They even guide and lead the 16th-century dance-drama LosMatachines, which celebrates the decline of Moorish culture in Spain with the fall of Granada in 1492.
Even though disciplinarians, Los Agüelos offer pork posole to all comers. Most people accept this seasonal delicacy joyfully, but on occasion someone will turn it down. Then Los Agüelos will look at one another knowingly: The refusal of a bowl of posole might signal to them that the person might be a Crypto-Jew.
The Crypto-Jews were secret practitioners of the Judaic faith who had come to this part of New Mexico pretending to be Christians as they hid from the Spanish Inquisition. One hundred and seventy six of them had secretly settled in Almadén, Mexico and then, led by an Indian guide named Miguel, they followed their spiritual head Castaño de Sosa into the Pecos Valley. Pork dishes like posole, tamales or empanaditas de carne would go against their faith. Their descendants had last names like Raél, Espinoza, Pérez, Cruz or Torres. Los Agüelos tended to weed out non-Christians in territorial New Mexico.
Sometimes these old Agüelos were accompanied by beastheaded ogres called “Los Mudos.” These “Mute-Ones” looked human except for their animal heads. They carried a small cross in their hands and never spoke. Their mouths were laced shut. They could only speak at midnight on Christmas Eve and then only to praise the birth of Jesus. Christmas Eve used to be a time of great anticipation and preparation for all children. With the coming of dawn, donning several layers of clothes, they would walk from house to house asking for Christmas tidings.
These Christmas mummers changed a lot across the centuries. The original recorded Christmas mummers lived in the last decades of the 1800s. They asked for Christmas treats on Jan. 6, which used to be our original Christmas time. A verse would be sung at the door of the homes before the kids were given their Christmas tidings: “Denos Aguinaldos, denos Aguinaldos. Sí nos han de dar, sí nos han de dar, que la noche es fría y tenemos que andar, que la noche es fría y tenemos que andar,” (“Give us Christmas tidings, (repeat) Sure you won’t say ‘no,’ (repeat) for the night is chilly and we’ve far to go. (repeat)).” Their favorite treats were called puches, which were hard cookies soaked in sweet heavy cream.
Just before statehood in the early decades of the 1900s, this same custom was called “Los Oremos.” It required kids to recite this poem at the door before they were given goodies:“Oremos, oremos, angelitos semos. Del cielo venimos a pedir, oremos. Si no nos dan oremos, puertas y ventanas quebraremos,” (“We come forth from Heaven as angels to pray. We ask for some goodies from your home today. If you will not give them we’ll break down your door and shatter your windows and then, pray some more.”). The kids were given bollitos, which were spongy anise cakes akin to flat muffins.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the custom of going from door to door asking for “Mis Crismes” on Christmas morning was common in the small towns of Northern New Mexico. The kids would put on their jackets and ear warmers and grab empty flour sacks. They would walk through the snow dragging their sacks of goodies. The children would come to their neighbors’ doors, full of anticipation. Whenever they yelled, “Mis Crismes,” the owners would come out to give them seasonal treats such as oranges, apples, walnuts, peanuts, hard candy and cookies. By that time, the Christmas cookie called the “biscochito” was flat and crispy.
“Biscochitos,” as the name indicates, were “twice-baked cookies.” Cookies are called “biscuits” in English and “biscotti” in Italian. They are popped into the oven for a few minutes and then, just before done, they are whisked out and sprinkled with seasonal liquor.
Nowadays, biscochitos are cranked out of cookie shooters. But 100 years ago, before commercial cutters, bakers would form cookie dough squares cut into semi-crosses and curl them about by hand into the form of a fleur de lis. This tradition points to the French influence of the Bourbon kings of Spain and France, and popularized by Emperors Maximilian and Carlotta in Mexico.
Other traditions may still continue, but the voices of the young Yuletide mummers now only lives on in our collective cultural memories.
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