Guide to Christmas in New Mexico: Family Activities and Luminarias

Holiday lights in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Robert Alexander / Contributor / Getty Images 

While New Mexico is mainly known as a summer destination, it also shines—literally—at Christmastime. The rich cultural traditions of the Latinx and Native American populations in New Mexico make Christmas an occasion for major festivals. A beautiful aspect of this celebration is the appearance everywhere of luminarias—small candles set in sand inside paper bags. Thousands of these small flames line streets, staircases, doorways, and even roofs. Visitors can enjoy luminaria displays in Old Town Albuquerque, historic Santa Fe, or in smaller culturally-rich towns such as Taos. 

In December, you are likely to find snow on the adobes and Indian dance ceremonies at the pueblos in New Mexico. Also, Santa Fe has a ski mountain just 30 minutes from the central plaza, and Taos offers awesome skiing a short drive from town. In addition to skiing, many resorts offer sleigh rides, snowboarding, horseback riding, and tubing. It may be cold in the upper elevations but the lights and the Christmas cheer will warm your heart.

Note some events have been altered or canceled for 2020, so see below and event websites for details.

01 of 07

Light Your Evening With Luminarias

Luminarias in Santa Fe, New Mexico

 Nevada Wier / Getty Images

For 2020, the Albuquerque luminaria displays are canceled and the viewing of luminarias in Santa Fe was changed to a drive-through event.

On Christmas Eve, the main plazas of Santa Fe and Old Town Albuquerque are decorated with thousands of luminarias. In Santa Fe, cider is served, carols are sung, and groups walk to the nearby Cross of the Martyrs park. The annual Christmas Eve trek up gallery-filled Canyon Road in Santa Fe is lined with both luminarias and bonfires. Galleries are open and often serve snacks and drinks. 

The largest display in Albuquerque takes place on Christmas Eve in the Old Town Plaza and Country Club neighborhood, with luminarias lining the walkways by the hundreds throughout the plaza leading to the historic San Felipe de Neri Church and its Christmas Eve mass.

02 of 07

Meander Madrid

Madrid, a town about 40 minutes southwest of Santa Fe, may be the ultimate New Mexican Christmas town. Back when it was a company-run coal mining village in the 1920s and 1930s, its light display was so massive that airlines detoured flights to give passengers an aerial view from above. On Saturdays in December, stores stay open late, and you can take in the holiday lights while you do a little shopping.

03 of 07

Watch Native American Dances

Picuris Pueblo closed to the public in 2020.

A number of pueblos are located near Santa Fe and Taos, and visitors have an opportunity to attend traditional dances during the holiday season. Some of the traditional events during the winter months honor animals; there are pueblos hosting torchlight processions of the Virgin on Christmas Eve, and dances on Christmas Day. Check with Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, Picuris Pueblo, and Tesuque Pueblo, which all offer various dances on Christmas Day.

04 of 07

Savor the Christmas Events in Santa Fe

Santa Fe City Park in winter

 Bill Heinsohn / Getty Images

The 2020 Winter Spanish market, Las Posadas play, and "Christmas at the Palace" events were canceled, and the Midnight Mass was shifted to a virtual event.

In Santa Fe, families can also enjoy an annual Winter Spanish Market, a special Midnight Mass at The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, and a traditional Las Posadas play at New Mexico History Museum about Mary and Joseph's search for a room in Bethlehem. An annual "Christmas at the Palace" event at the Palace of the Governors combines cultural traditions, and families will find carols, story-telling, Native American dances, and an appearance by Santa Claus.

On Christmas Eve, bonfires are lighted on Canyon Road and people bundle up to walk this adobe-lined road, stopping in for refreshments at the open galleries and restaurants.

Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07

Spend Christmas on the Pecos in Carlsbad

Christmas on the Pecos was canceled for 2020.

One of New Mexico’s grandest holiday light shows takes place every Christmas season in Carlsbad. Boats glide on the Pecos River through a fairyland of twinkling lights created by more than 100 local homeowners who spend hours creatively decorating backyards and boat docks with millions of lights. Boat tours are 40 minutes long and sail every evening from the Pecos River Village between late November 29 and the end of December.

06 of 07

Stroll the Albuquerque River of Lights

The River of Lights was canceled for 2020.

At the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden throughout December, this event features hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights, plus family activities, entertainment, food, crafts, dinner with Santa, and dinner with Father Time. This evening outing is fun for family and friends and truly impresses with hundreds of displays, all in keeping with the holidays and the theme of flora and fauna. Along more than 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of the garden’s pathways, large and small displays work together in a stunning display of light and movement. You can see the River of Lights from late November through late December, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when it is closed.

07 of 07

Discover Yuletide in Taos

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

 Marc Shandro / Getty Images

In 2020, Taos Pueblo was closed to the public until further notice.

In Taos, some uniquely New Mexican celebrations happen throughout the holiday season. Expect to see candle-lit farolitos (luminarias) lining the snow-draped streets in front of old adobe shopfronts and homes. Yuletide is the entire holiday season and includes all the unique traditions of the holiday season in the mountains of Northern New Mexico.

On Christmas Eve, head to Taos Pueblo for a stunning contrast between massive bonfires and the Procession of the Virgin with rifle salutes from the rooftops of the millennium-year-old adobe pueblo buildings. It's an inspiring pageant that's highly memorable. Then on Christmas Day, the same plaza is the venue for an ancient Native American ceremonial dance honoring winter. Note: no photos or video are allowed at this event.

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