I don’t Think We’re in Canada Anymore! – Christmas in New Mexico


Music – “Christmas in New Mexico” from Christmas in New Mexico by Jerry Dean. Released: 2013

Christmas Tradition in Canada, Where I Grew Up

Every region and culture has its own traditions and foods. Where I grew up, in the suburbs of Toronto, we had “Christmas”, which involved my Mom and Dad planning months in advance for their homemade Christmas cards, Mom baking a slew of decadent brick like Brandied fruitcakes, wrapped in cheesecloth and parchment paper and stored on a shelf in our basement storage room.

Similar to my Mom's Brandied Fruitcake

Similar to my Mom’s Brandied Fruitcake

She would make them in September and once a week, carefully open them, poke little holes in them with a skewer and ladle the brandy over them before wrapping them up again. By the time Christmas rolled around, they had soaked up so much brandy (and flavour, of course), that it was inadvisable to light a match near them. My Mom was never a tippler, but I often wondered if all of that brandy really went into the fruitcakes over that 3 month period!

Our Christmas dinner was ‘traditional’ for the area and the cultures I grew up in and around: turkey with “regular” stuffing (none of this cornbread or oyster stuff!)

Turkey with 'Traditional' Stuffing

Turkey with ‘Traditional’ Stuffing

Then, there would be cranberry relish, mashed potatoes, gravy, usually a couple of vegetable dishes, such as warm Brussels sprouts in a bacon and vinegar sauce, sherried carrots in butter, olives and celery sticks, and of course, plum pudding with hard sauce….lots of hard sauce, which my Dad ate with or without the pudding. It was always good and always something to look forward to.

Traditional Plum Pudding with Hard Sauce (this one needs more Hard Sauce!)

Traditional Plum Pudding with Hard Sauce (this one needs more Hard Sauce!)

Oddly enough, although my Mom was a good cook, she was obstinate about gravy. She did not ‘do’ gravy, so my Dad was always left with the task. Throughout my life, at family gatherings such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter….my mother never ‘did’ gravy. Perhaps she had an ‘ugly gravy incident’ during her childhood, which traumatized her. I’ll never know.

Christmas in New Mexico, Where I Live Now

December, 1994 was my first Christmas in my new home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although our neighbourhood and surrounding neighbourhoods had the usual strings of Christmas lights, Santa Clauses and snowmen cutouts and the like, I was surprised to find that many residential areas, businesses, city buildings, hotels, etc., put out thousands of “luminarias” on Christmas Eve. There were so many of them, especially in neighbourhoods around what is called Old Town, the city started running Luminaria Tours.

Christmas Lights in Canada

Christmas Lights in Canada

Luminarias in Old Town, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Christmas Eve

Luminarias in Old Town, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Christmas Eve

More Luminarias

More Luminarias

In 2004, my husband and I took my Mom, who had moved here in 2003, on one of the tours and it was incredible. As far as the eye could see, thousands of luminarias lining sidewalks, on rooftops and parapets, in parks and plazas, around and on top of churches: they were everywhere. It was pretty awesome and looked like a fairyland. Christmas in New Mexico is a candle sellers dream!

luminaria 5 Some people refer to them as ‘farolitos’ (little lanterns), but they are one in the same. In northern New Mexico, the farolito is the bag with the candle inside, but in the southern part of the state, the same thing is called a luminaria.

luminaria 3
True luminarias are a New Mexico tradition and are small (sandwich size) paper bags, filled with a couple of inches of sand. The top of the bag is folded over a bit for stability and a single white votive candle is placed inside. When lit, the golden glow lights up the dark night in a quiet and peaceful way. That first year, I wanted luminarias for our yard, to experience the tradition.

Filling the Lumarias with sand and a votive candle.  Thousands are sold around Christmas

Filling the Lumarias with sand and a votive candle. Thousands are sold around Christmas

Early in November, you could drive around Albuquerque and see signs posted for purchasing luminarias by the dozen (filled and candle included), from church groups, charitable organizations, youth groups and just about everyone else.

I purchased 6 dozen of them, which were delivered the week before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, 1994, my husband and I placed them around our yard, lining the sidewalk and garden and patiently lit them, one by one. Fortunately, it was not windy, which can sometimes be a problem. How the candles never end up torching the bags and setting the yard on fire is still anathema to me, but it’s been going on for a long time and you never read of a luminaria fire from the Christmas Eve tradition.

The Spanish, Mexican and Native American traditions are strong in New Mexico, and Christmas is a time of feasting. Posole is a Southwest tradition at this time. Posole is dried hominy and it may be made as a dish in itself, but is more often featured with boned pork, onions, chiles and spices.

Posole, a traditional Christmas tradition in New Mexico, made with dried hominy

Posole, a traditional Christmas tradition in New Mexico, made with dried hominy

Other popular holiday dishes include Pumpkin and Chile Soup, Carne Adobada (pork chops marinated in red chile sauce), Red Chile Tamales and Albondigas Soup (a type of meatball soup with red chile).

Red Chile Tamales

Red Chile Tamales

Albondigas, meatball soup

Albondigas, meatball soup

Carne Adobada

Carne Adobada

Biscochitos (the traditional spelling is Bizcochitos) (New Mexican sugar cookies) are also a Christmas specialty in New Mexico. One recipe for Bizcochitos, a traditional one, follows below:

Bizcochitos or Biscochitos, New Mexican Sugar Cookies

Bizcochitos or Biscochitos, New Mexican Sugar Cookies

Bizcochitos (Sugar Cookies)

There are hundreds of recipes for Bizcochitos (Biscochitos), but this is one of the more traditional ones, taken from “The Good Life – New Mexico Traditions and Food”, by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert:

1 cup sugar
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups shortening
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon anise seed
2 teaspons baking powder
4 cups white flour
about ¾ cup water

Cream shortening or lard with hand; add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add anise seed and flour which has been sifted with salt and baking powder to the lard mixture. Add enough water to make the mixture hold together. Roll ½ inch thick and cut into fancy shapes. Dip in sugar and bake in a moderate oven.

Note that the use of lard was traditional in making Bizcochitos.

Enjoy whatever holiday you celebrate at this time of year. Merry Christmas from New Mexico! Navidad Alegre y Felices Fiestas de Nuevo México!

About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,500. What next? More shelves?
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1 Response to I don’t Think We’re in Canada Anymore! – Christmas in New Mexico

  1. Merry Christmas! Loved the description of your traditional Canadian Christmas compared with New Mexico. Loved the Luminarias!

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