Growing up in Tierra Amarilla during the Christmas season was an exciting, busy, and festive time. The school days between Thanksgiving and the beginning of the Christmas break were the time for rehearsals for the Christmas Pageant where the entire school participated. Amateur actors, set designers, singers, and musicians took up afternoons and evenings as we practiced for the big event. When it was time for the curtain to go up, the bleak high school gym had been transformed into a winter wonderland with fresh greenery, fake snow, and wonderful stage settings created by the students. Our moms, who were eager to see their children at their best did not mind the hard work of making and sewing the customs worn by the actors.
The Glee Club under the direction of Mr. Miller opened the night’s festivities with several traditional popular songs of the Christmas season. After several speeches by some of the teachers and the school principal; the curtain rose. On stage were several shepherds, wise men, angels with wings, cutout camels, sheep, and a live Nativity scene.
During the intermission, the Glee Club again entertained singing traditional Christmas Carols. When the curtain fell at the end of the play, it was promptly raised again, and with all the participants gathered on stage and along with the audience sang the final carol of the night, “Silent Night”.
The next day as the Christmas break began; the idle students began to prepare their itinerary for the vacation ahead. Sleds were taken out of storage, runners waxed and readied for the first good snowfall of the year. Rubber shoes were inspected and if they were damaged from last winter, all they needed was a rubber patch and they were ready to go. Since most of us wore hand-me-downs, it was time for our parents to determine if an order to Sears & Roebuck for new clothes was in order. We would study that wish book from start to finish just wondering what it would be like to have this and that, a new bike, or a refrigerator for instance. Once an order was mailed, we would wait in anticipation for its arrival, going to the post office daily to inquire if our order had arrived.
We were always taught to believe in Santa Claus, that bearded man in a red suit and his eight reindeer (this was before Rudolf made the scene) that magically appeared on Christmas Eve every year. We believed so wholeheartedly that on Christmas Eve we would write letters to Santa and throw them in the fire of the woodstove, we were told that the smoke would carry them to Santa. To this day I actually think it worked. I am sorry to say that this wonderful tradition of writing to Santa via smoke was not passed on to my children. Since all of my children have wood-burning fireplaces or stoves, I hope to revive that tradition with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They of course are much smarter and well-informed than my generation was, so I doubt if they will fall for such a story.
The Christmas season in Tierra Amarilla during the forties was a busy and festive time indeed, in late November the big Matanzas would take place at grandfather’s house. Large hogs that had been fed and fattened since the spring were slaughtered, placed on a large table, and prepared for butchering. Water was boiled in large pots over an open fire; burlap sacks were immersed then draped over the hog with more water added over the sacks until the hog’s hair was soft and easy to remove.
Knives for butchering and axes for quartering were sharpened, meat saws were made ready and the whisky bottles were hidden in the woodpile out of sight of the women. My grandfather Víctor Ulibarrí and our neighbor Juan Gómez would quarter the animal while my grandmother Francisquita and her crew of Reyesitas Romero, and Emilia Gómez, readied pans and directed the men on how they wanted the meat to be cut. Aban García, my grandfather’s trusted handyman man kept the pots filled, adding wood to keep the fires burning and the water boiling. Juan and Emilia Gómez had been my grandparent’s best friends and neighbor’s ever since I can remember. Juan would milk my grandfather’s two milk cows early every morning and both households would share the milk. Juan owned the only Barber Shop in town where a half-dollar got you a great flattop haircut.
Except for the hair, there is absolutely nothing that is lost from a hog. The head would be used to make queso de cabeza, a highly pickled and seasoned meatloaf very good with crackers, eaten cold and usually reserved for snacks before retiring. The pig’s feet would go into the posole and much of the meat would be used to make pork roasts, red and green chile stews, tamales, and carne adobada. When all the meat had been cut, divided (everyone received a share) and put away, the chicharrones that had been frying in one of the big pots and the fresh tortillas were ready. After all the hard work with everyone tired and hungry, they rewarded themselves with fresh tortillas, chicharrones, and chile verde and the men retrieved the whiskey from the woodpile.
As Christmas Day, which we called “El Día de Los Crismes” in our northern New Mexico Spanish, approached, my grandmother’s kitchen with its wood-burning stove was always warm and filled with that wonderful aroma of fresh bread and pies baking or empanaditas fried in a cast-iron pot. Bizcochitos and cookies of all kinds were baked for the Christmas season to be given away as Christmas presents to family and friends. Christmas Eve arrived and preparations began for the traditional posolada to be dined on after everyone returned from midnight mass. This meal would be held at mama grande’s (great-grandmother) house next door. Luisa, who had worked for mama grande for a number of years, was busy preparing the food. There would be posole, chile rojo; frijolitos con racióncitas, my grandfather’s favorite, tortillas and pastelitos de fruta. The chokecherry wine that had been fermenting in wooden barrels since September would be served to the adults. I being the oldest grandchild along with the older cousins would sometimes get to have a small glass of wine.
The family would begin to arrive at mama grande’s house and gather around the large Christmas tree before the trip to church. Presents were placed under the tree by family members to be opened Christmas morning. I soon spotted mine, the wrapping gave it away. I had asked grandfather for a football and this particular present was wrapped in brown paper and white string identical to the paper and string he used to wrap items at his store. The church was only some five hundred feet from the house but the way was a tricky one. We had to cross our corral and barn to get there. We crossed in the dark with only a flashlight and the moon to guide us. You had to be careful where you stepped because there were always horses, cows, sheep, goats, and chickens.
A beautiful sight it was as we entered the mission church of Santo Niño that evening with the lights turned low, the beautiful Christmas trees on each side of the altar flocked with tinsel and lights, along with the aroma of incense burning made you feel warm and welcome. The three tall trees on the left side of the altar lit only with blue lights, guarding the Nacimiento (Nativity) with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, were works of art as only the sisters who lived in the convent next to the church could do. The right side of the altar was an array with the many votive candles burning as parishioners took their turn to light them, kneel for a few moments and pray for special intentions. The presence of a higher power was evident on that night.
The church Mayordomos (caretakers) Anselmo and his wife Inez made sure the church would be warm by arriving early to light the fire in the one big potbellied stove at the rear of the church. Many assembled around the stove before mass to get warm and to sing Christmas carols along with the choir. As the choir sang “Silent Night” the last bell was rung and the church began to fill as the people took their places and joined in the singing.
My friend Maxi and I had been training to be altar boys and tonight we were going to get our first chance to perform. We had been training under Sister Joseph Lorenzo for weeks. Maxi and I would be the high servers and Joaquin and Reynaldo two older boys would be the low servers. The high servers got to move the missal from one side to the other at the altar and help the priest during communion by holding the paten under the communicant’s chin. During benediction, we got to do the incense thing. The low servers knelt at the altar steps and except for ringing a small bell during consecration did nothing. Maxi and I were very nervous because we knew Sister was watching and we knew we would get it from her at school if we messed up. Throughout mass when Father Austin wasn’t looking, Joaquin and Reynaldo were looking at each other snickering and holding up fingers to indicate the number of mistakes Maxi and I according to them had made so far. I suppose we were not very good because Joaquin and Reynaldo ran out of fingers and the next time we saw Sister at school, she made us stay an hour after school for a week to practice serving mass.
It started to snow as the people left the church. I can still envision the light of the luminarias still burning around the church, the people, and the falling snow, everybody in a happy mood hugging and wishing each other a merry Christmas. My grandfather Víctor with his hat off letting the snow hit his face. Tía Cleotilde and Tío Gumersindo arm in arm walking slowly through the snow to keep from slipping. The older boys and girls walked home together singing carols down the main street and stopping at the big Christmas tree outside the Green Leaf for a few more carols before going home.
Father Austin our pastor and Father Julian who had been assisting in the celebration of the mass were invited to Grandmother’s house for posole. The priests knew the route we were taking home through the barn and corral decided it would be better to get to the house in their car.
Next day, a cold Christmas Day and two feet of fresh snow, greeted me and my friends, Rorro, Maxi, José María, and my brother’s Roque and Alejandro as we went from house to house, dodging snowballs from the older boys, for our booty of candy, baked goods, sometimes money, or whatever was offered. It was a cultural tradition that on Christmas morning, all the young boys and girls would take a 25-pound flour sack or a pillowcase door to door yelling “MIS CRISMES” waiting at each doorstep for someone to open the door and slip something in our sacks. In the quiet cold crisp air of the morning you could hear voices yelling, “MIS CRISMES, MIS CRISMES”, all over town and kids running from house to house knocking on doors waking up people. On many occasions people did not answer the door, we wondered why, we didn’t know that they may have stayed up late celebrating and had probably just gone to bed when we got to their door. This homegrown tradition on Christmas Day similar to today’s trick or treat, a tradition practiced all over the world for Halloween; has ceased to exist and is gone forever.
Mamá grande’s house is no more. The house purchased by my great grandfather José Roque Ulibarrí from Anselmo Valdez on July 25, 1889, for sixty selected choice sheep was donated by the last owners to the Catholic Church. The church in its ignorance of the historical value of this gem demolished the house along with the barn and corral to build a parking lot. Over one hundred years old this two-story home constructed from adobe with a pitched roof styled after housing built at Camp Plummer (later called Fort Lowell) active from 1865 to 1869 near Los Ojos, was an excellent example of the early Spanish colonial architecture of the area. It should have been preserved and placed in the New Mexico State Registry, as one of the oldest structures in Tierra Amarilla.
Today as I reminisce growing up in Tierra Amarilla during those long hard winters with the huge amount of snow that fell and how cold it got. I sit back, close my eyes and transport myself through my thoughts back to those Christmas seasons of my youth when the true spirit of Christmas was the birth of Jesus and when my worries were few and family and friends were the most important issues in my life.