This post on Christmas dances at Northern New Mexico pueblos was first published in December 2010 was updated on 12/5/2016
One of the greatest cultural resources in New Mexico are the pueblos, home to indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. All but one of the Eight Northern Pueblos are within an hour’s drive of Santa Fe. Taos is a little further.
The pueblos continue to follow traditional spiritual practices as they have done for uncounted generations. Today, many are intertwined with the Catholicism the Spanish forced them to embrace. Ceremonial dances are a vital part of pueblo life. There are dances at Northern New Mexico pueblos over the Christmas holidays. They start on Christmas Eve and go through All Kings Day on January Many fall over the Christmas holiday season and are open to the public. The exact meaning of the dances can only be guessed at by outsiders; they are private about their religious practices. Dances are often part of larger ceremonies not shared with outsiders. These may have gone on for days prior to the public part of these rituals.
Christmas dances at Northern New Mexico pueblos
Because the pueblos consider the dances to be sacred, we may never know their exact meaning. Spiritual matters are not shared with outsiders. Observe and get into the moment. Traditionally, Christmas dances at Northern New Mexico pueblos are either animal dances such as deer, buffalo or turtle. The other dance done at Christmas is Los Matachines. This dance, which came to the New World with the Spanish, is danced by both Hispanic and Pueblo peoples. It was introduced to the puelbos by the Franciscan friars who wanted to channel what they considered heathen dances into an acceptable and reverent format. It is still danced a the pueblos today. Santa Clara and Jemez Pueblos use drums and rattles for Los Matachines; other Pueblos including San Ildefonso use fiddle and guitar, harking back to the dance’s Spanish origins.
Christmas Eve pueblo dances
Christmas Eve brings torchlight processions and dances at a few of the Pueblos. (Please note that dances and Pueblos dancing can vary from year to year. Check with the Pueblo for the most up-to-date information.)
Nambe Buffalo Dance in the evening. For the start time call the pueblo at (505)455-4410).
Picaris Las Matachines
Ohkay Owingeh Las Matachines, bonfires lit at sundown
Picuris Las Matachines arrive starting late afternoon; Bonfire dance at night
Taos Pueblo On Christmas Eve There is a Vespers service in St. Jerome’s Church at 4pm followed by a candlelight procession carrying the statue of the Virgin around the Plaza. Bonfires are lit and the men shoot rifles into the air to celebrate Christ’s birth. The Taos Pueblo begins events in late afternoon and charges their regular admission for these.
Tesuque No information on what dance they’re doing
Christmas Day pueblo dances
The Pueblos listed below traditionally hold dances on Christmas Day.
Ohkay Owingeh Las Matachinas at about 11:30am and 4:30pm (times are approximate)
Picuris Las Matachinas
Santa Clara Check with the pueblo about a week before
San Ildefonso Buffalo Dance starting about 10am
Taos Pueblo Check in mid-December to see if they have dances open to the public
Tesuque No information on what dance they’re doing
Other dance around the holidays
12/26/16 Ohkay Owingeh has the Turtle Dance starting at about 10:30am
1/1/16 Picuris Pueblo Transfer of Canes to new pueblo officials and various dances
1/1/16 Dances at Taos Pueblo. Check with them the week before Christmas to see if the dances are open to the public
1/6/16 King’s Day Celebration many pueblos will dance either the Antelope, Buffalo or Deer dances in to celebrate transfer of Canes of Authority to new tribal officers.
Here’s a schedule of dances. For the most up-to-date information check with the individual pueblos.
These dances are part of each pueblo’s spiritual practice and are religious ceremonies. It is a privilege to attend, and an honor to be allowed to share these ceremonies that are deeply central to their lives. If you go, it is important to follow proper etiquette. Taos Pueblo recently closed to visitors on feast days because they didn’t respect the simple rules.
Highlights of etiquette for pueblo dances
Pueblos are sovereign nations and have their own governing bodies and rules for visitors. Observe pueblo etiquette. Below are some of the most important things to know. For the full etiquette click here.
Don’t bring cameras
Absolutely no photos are allowed. The best thing to do is leave your cameras and cell phones in the car. Some pueblos will confiscate cameras and phones they believe were used to take photos. These may not be returned. Some pueblos are instituting fines.
Don’t talk to dancers
Don’t walk across the dance plaza
Don’t ask questions about the dances
or any other aspects of pueblo life as some things aren’t shared. If you do ask and don’t get an answer, let it go.
Don’t speak during dances
These are sacred ceremonies.
On feast days, only enter a private home by invitation
Dances start around 10am in most cases (except Christmas Eve) and continue to mid-afternoon with some breaks. These are approximate times; these sacred rituals have their own time frame. They start when they start and they finish when they finish. You are free come and go as you please. Dances may change from year to year as may the pueblos holding them. Always check with the pueblo in advance as times change and dances are sometimes cancelled or not open to the public.
There are also dances, feast days and pueblo events open to the public throughout the year. Check this schedule for a listing of feast days. It’s suggested that you call the pueblo the week before the dance to make sure the public is welcome. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque has dances on weekends.