One year, far from home at Christmas, a friend and I celebrated Christmas Eve with the Native Americans at their pueblo in Acoma Sky City, New Mexico. A Christmas experience of spirit and light, this unique celebration remains etched in hearts forever.
Sky city is sixty-five miles west of Albuquerque. Located several miles off Interstate 40, the pueblo road was dark and beautiful. We parked at the cultural center at the bottom of the mesa. We had two options, to take the small tour bus or to walk the steep road.
The freezing temperatures did not deter us from choosing to climb to the 367-foot-high sandstone mesa city. Traditional New Mexican luminarias, paper bags containing lit candles guided us up the steep winding road. With only flickering candlelight, we witnessed millions and millions of stars twinkling through and above the dark monolithic formations.
The paved road ended and Native American tradition began. Keeping with tradition, the plateau city has no electricity or running water. Fortunately, we spotted visitors descending from the tour bus and followed closely behind. As we passed houses and Kivas, candles and flashlights flickered inside houses.
We gathered on the steps of the San Esteban Del Rey Mission built in 1629 by the Spanish missionaries. The church faced a well-tended graveyard. A stonewall surrounded the outer fringes of the graveyard, beyond the wall, a sheer drop to the land below. Dark stone effigies stood on the walls, guardians of shadowy graveyard. Considered sacred land, all photographic images were forbidden.
A peaceful crowd waited patiently in the winter night for the bell chimes, signaling the start of Christmas Eve festivities. Everyone appeared mesmerized by the beauty of stars, celestial waves of light and the comet streaking across the brilliant sky. Around midnight the tiny shutters above the mission door opened. Two young men looked out into the night, and began to ring the bell.
On the first bell peal, a bonfire began to roar between the mission and graveyard as the doors to the mission opened. A quiet procession flowed into the mission. Inside the shadows danced on the walls from candles and flashlights. Next to Stations of the Cross, stag heads decorated with religious clothes watched silently. Maize and other natural gifts of the Earth adorned the walls.
A procession of Native Americans, holding woven baskets filled with clothing, candles and other items silently approached the altar. On the top stair in front of the altar, an Elder sat and received these gifts. The Christmas tree stood to the side of the altar, forgotten by the attention to the giving ceremony.
Native drummers in the distance began to beat melodies as they approached and entered the mission. The Native dancers entered divided into three groups behind the drummers. Each had a special dance of thanksgiving to perform. The beauty of these dances cannot be described in words, only felt by the heart.
The first group, the Native dancers dressed as buffalo entered. The buffalo skins with horns concealed their faces. The sound of the drums and bells jingling echoed in the mission. They performed a traditional dance in thanksgiving for the buffalo
A second group entered with deerskins and antlers. Another section of dance was performed. The final group, the elk dancers entered carrying two canes with elk hooves on them. Dancers, young, old, male and female crowded the mission church as a silent crowd watched in appreciation for the beauty and sacredness of the dances.
The dancers, led by the drummers, slowly left the mission. Without ceasing their dance, they circled the bonfire. Native male Elders huddled in colorful blankets stood solemnly watching their movements. When the dancing concluded, we were offered a choice of hot chocolate or coffee. Residents of the city warmly thanked us for coming. An exchange of Merry Christmas with residents and we began our return journey.
Deeply touched by the ceremony witnessed, we quietly walked the winding road to the car. The twinkling stars and the sacredness of the moment, etched within us a memory of a Christmas, simple and spiritually profound.