Solstice celebrations in the Southwest

Filed under: Living on the Earth |

by Mary Lowers

One thing all humans have in common is celebration on or near the solstices, the longest and shortest days of the year, June 21 and December 21. As we approach the shortest day of the year or longest night as some refer to it, regional celebrations to bring the light back seem a good thing to take a few minutes and study.

Nearly every pueblo in northern New Mexico has seasonal dances taking place in December. The closest pueblo to the San Luis Valley is Taos. Dances chosen for winter celebration may vary from year to year.  On December 24 the village at the pueblo, a World Heritage Site where people have lived for a thousand years, traditional bonfires will be lit along the river running through the village to the church. A Children’s Dance will be preformed. The following morning, on Christmas Day, the Deer Dance will begin at midday.

These festivities at Taos Pueblo are open to everyone. The meaning of and vital importance of the Deer Dance and other ceremonies is kept private from those outside the Pueblo. It was only after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the reconquest by Spain in 1692 that the pueblo peoples were able to practice their religion openly without fear of inquisition-style retribution. Taos tribal member Marcie Winters says in the Taos News, “For many of the pueblo cultures the Deer Dance is something difficult to explain but it is a beautiful tradition to witness.”

The sacred clowns of the tribe will appear at the Deer Dance. Their function is important, their actions often hilarious. They may throw those who misbehave in the river, winter ice or not. If you chose to make these festivities at Taos Pueblo part of your holiday there are a few things to remember so you don’t wind up in the river skidding down the ice. While the ceremonies are noisy, rifles are shot off to scare off evil energies, the drums and rattles are rhythmically repetitive, it is important to be quiet and respectful. Taking pictures is defiantly NOT OK. Dress warmly; these ceremonies take place on so-called “Indian time” and they are held outside. On New Year’s Day Taos Pueblo will hold a Turtle Dance beginning at midday.

Pueblo peoples and new world Hispanic peoples share a traditional dance ceremony Los Matachines. This dance is a blending of traditions that began with the Islamic Moors who occupied much of Iberian Peninsula from 711 to 1492. They brought the dance north from Africa. According to Taos historian Larry Torres “It is one of the few dances shared by Hispanic and Native peoples. There are forty-four catalogued versions of the dance in the Americas, from communities up and down the Rio Grande to the rainforests of Belize.” The Los Matachines are not identical everywhere the dance is performed. The costumes of the dancers also vary, with some aspects held in common.

Costumes show a Moorish influence from the Middle Ages. Dancers are often masked with scarves hiding the lower part of the face with fringe called a felco, masking eyes and forehead. They may sport tall headdresses made of fine fabric such as silk and velvet decorated with silk ruffles, jeweled trinkets and symbols. The back of the head gear is often long ribbons arranged in specific patterns. In the right hand the dancer holds a three-pronged wand called a palma representing the Christian belief in the trinity or the three aspects of the divine. As the dance evolved in the Americas, native groups added symbolism. Larry Torres says, “In the Americas it is reflected in the god Quetzalcoatl of Aztec Mexico who is the god of air, land and water,” another trinity. Gourd rattles are often carried in the left hand.

In Belize according to Mayan native Victor Choc, the dance featuring four Matachines is known as “The Dance of Cortez.” In the village of Bernalillo north of Albuquerque, Los Matachines have danced every August on or around the feast day of San Lorenzo, for 315 years. In the mountain village of Arroyo Seco on the road to Taos Ski Valley the dance features one lone Matachine.  Ancient scary ogres called abuelos (grandfathers)keep order at the Hispanic dances in a similar veins to the sacred clowns at Native celebrations. Hispanic dances feature guitars and violins and native ceremonies are to the beat of drums and rattles.

One of the Los Matachines dances I have attended is held on December 10 to 12 in the village of Tortuga near Las Cruces, NM. The dance there is held in honor of the Guadalupe. December 12 is her feast day. The colorful, beribboned dancers circle the plaza in front of the whitewashed church carrying a costumed stature of the Guadalupe on a high pallet in their midst. As the dance becomes more and more intense, rifles are discharged into the air to scare off evil. The statue of the Guadalupe eventual is carried into a place of honor close to the altar of the church. The assembled crowd then hikes up the four and a half mile trail to a Guadalupe shrine on a hill just behind the church to pray and light candles for the intercession of the holy lady for many intentions. The hardcore participants stay all day on the windy hill making quitotes (walking sticks), coronas (headbands) and building bonfires in the shape of crosses to light the mountainside.

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