Christmas dances at Northern New Mexico Pueblos

This post on Christmas dances at Northern New Mexico pueblos was first published in December 2010 was updated on 12/22/2016

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.

Celicillon Traditional Zuni Dancers Photo by Nick Pecastaing, courtesy of Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

Celicillon Traditional Zuni Dancers Photo by Nick Pecastaing, courtesy of Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

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
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 Dances start at midnight and go till about 2am

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
No public dances
San Ildefonso
Buffalo Dance (Summer People) Las Matachinas (Winter People) starting about 10am
Taos Pueblo Deer Dance starting about 1pm
Tesuque dance starting around 10am- 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 Taos Pueblo Turtle Dance starting at about 9am
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.

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11 Responses to “Christmas dances at Northern New Mexico Pueblos”

  1. LeslieTravel
    December 22, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

    I’d love to see a performance of a pueblo dance. Looks interesting!

  2. Matthew Martinez
    December 23, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    Although occurring at the same time as many other holiday celebrations, the Turtle Dance at Ohkay Owingeh should not be listed as such nor should it be be named a “performance.” I would also caution your use of Jill Sweet’s book as the venue to interpret dances. Observers can guess all they wish about the dances but perhaps more importantly is to just be and attend with respect, appreciate the beauty and blessings and not focus on the knowing of the ceremonies and rituals. In this practice, Native and non-natives can be part of the larger community and global connections of health and well being…

    • Billie Frank
      December 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

      Thank you for the really thoughtful comment. I have made a few changes to the post. I am not a fan of the Sweet book- but there is not much available on the topic. If you have a better resource to recommend, I would greatly appreciate it. I understand what you are saying about observing and being, but I believe people want to know as much as they can about what is going on without crossing the line.

    • Etiquette
      August 19, 2016 at 5:51 pm #

      Thank you for writing about proper etiquette while visiting pueblos. I am so glad that people from other cultures are staring to pay attention. The dances are a sacred communing with all life and so precious and rare. Being able to politely observe and experience them is a great and humbling gift.
      Many years ago I lived in Ranhcos de Taos and we had not a nickel to spend on Christmas dinner. A young man from the Taos Pueblo fed my family by bringing us the forequarter of a deer. How he knew we were so poor I will never know.
      Native American culture(s) are a blessing on this poor, tired earth.

  3. Charles Higgins
    December 24, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    Cool compilation of Santa Fe area peublo dances..


  4. Matthew Martinez
    December 27, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    There are quite a number of credible sources published that could be of use for your blog.

    As a starter, I suggest referencing the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center:

    “Pueblos of the Rio Grande: A visitor’s Guide” by Daniel Gibson

    The Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council also publishes an annual visitor’s guide that lists short historical descriptions and feast days of each of the northern villages. This was the first Pueblo produced Guidebook that has been published since 1988. All information is cleared by each of the Governors and read for proper content and accuracy. I know recently they have not published as much guides as they did in the past but most are available at hotels, chamber of commerce, etc.

    And, the New Mexico Tourism Division ensures cultural accuracy and maintains close collaborations with each of New Mexico’s tribes:

    hope this helps!!

    Matthew Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh)

  5. Billie Frank
    December 27, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

    Thanks for the information. We want to be as accurate as possible. I know about the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and their pages are actually in the post’s links for the Pueblos that don’t have their own websites. I will get a copy of the Eight Northern Pueblos Guide and read it and I will look for the Gibson book. I will check with the State Tourism folks and see what they have. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  6. mary thomas
    November 21, 2015 at 7:16 pm #

    Have you ever gone to Kewa (S.Dom)? Its huge on Christmas Day

    • Billie Frank
      November 22, 2015 at 9:53 am #

      Thanks for mentioning it. We didn’t include it in the post as it was on the Eight Northern Pueblos. Interestingly, these aren’t coming up on any of the online calendars.

  7. Agness
    December 21, 2015 at 2:42 pm #

    Oh Billie, I have not been here for a while! I bet you really enjoyed the show. Wish we had such interesting dance shows here in Amsterdam.
    Agness recently posted..More Than Just Tacos: A Beginner’s Guide To Mexican Street FoodMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      December 27, 2015 at 12:21 pm #

      We love going to the dances. Such an amazing cultural experience and only in NM.

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