Christmas in the Land of Enchantment
PHOTO: Jesus painting in a shed.

New Mexico is a memorable place to be during the holidays. It is one of the U.S.'s most Catholic states, one of the poorest, and it has a world-class art capital and strong American Indian heritage. The roadside art and makeshift shrines that stand year-round, even in desolate areas and near ghost towns, are given a special shine or some twinkling lights. Believers flock to the religious landmarks and inspirational art galleries, skiers and hippies converge on Taos, and locals turn Santa Fe into a magical town of twinkling lights.

Santa Fe Farolito Walk on Canyon Road

Capital city Santa Fe loves to dress up in lights for the holiday seasons – from fairy-lit trees to festive fire engines to the beloved annual Farolito Walk, which takes place Christmas Eve. Canyon Road is illuminated by hundreds of farolitos (votive candles inside paper bags) and luminarias (tiny bonfires). Crowds make their way slowly from the foot of Canyon Road up, up and up to Acequia Madre, singing carols or just sharing the beautiful atmosphere.

Seasonal Produce at Terra

As the "backstage" view from the chef's table at Terra proves, seasonal produce in New Mexico is spectacular just about any month. Fall's bounty of carrots, celeriac, purple cauliflower and pumpkins makes way for peppery radishes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and kale.

Medina Gallery

This cool little gallery in the center of Chimayo village sells mixed media art – much of it with religious themes — by several artists, including owner Sharon Candelario, whose medium is black etched tin. It is picturesque, friendly and has great sense-of-place. Plus, visitors will discover an enormous epicurean bonus in the form of Carlos Medina's Chile Shop, which is actually just one table in the gallery courtyard, selling the most delicious roast chile blends ever tasted for just a few dollars per bag.

El Santuario de Chimayo

Faith and art are the twin pillars of pilgrimage site El Santuario de Chimayo. Beloved priest Father Casimiro Roca has watched over the church and its hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for five decades, and he helped restore the once-dilapidated compound to a beautiful haven befitting its sacred and national historic landmark status. It's impossible to know how many loving hands have helped shape El Santuario since the first chapel was built in the early 1800s; it evolves every day, with supplicants affixing loved ones' photos to the sanctum walls of El Pocito, hanging baby shoes in the children's chapel, and building makeshift shrines around the courtyard.

Truchas

With virtually no highway signage pointing to it and few written hints of its existence, the tiny enclave of Truchas is one of Santa Fe's best kept secrets, particularly for an art lover. Perhaps a dozen galleries –- most of them also an artist's residence –- are tucked into a valley below the High Road to Taos, approximately an hour from Santa Fe. The visitors who do find Truchas should stop by the Montez Art Gallery, which specializes in saints and angel likenesses – fascinating year-round, but most appropriate to give friends and family at Christmas.

Firepit at Four Seasons Rancho Encantado

Even when the temperature drops to below freezing, the high desert never loses its clear, crisp beauty – and locals and visitors alike never tire of it, even if they have to bundle up in coats and stay near a crackling fire. Thanks to great desert views, an expansive firepit and famous green chile hot chocolate, Rancho Encantada is a popular place to gather at sunset.

Yuletide in Taos

Hidden in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, separated from civilization on one side by a vast national forest, and bordered by an ancient pueblo, the ski town/artists' haven of Taos is a truly off-the-beaten-path destination. Its residents love Christmas traditions, new and old, and there's a jam-packed "Yuletide in Taos" calendar that includes bonfires, a traditional Spanish "Las Posadas" reenactment, and the oddly dramatic Lights on Christmas Eve at Taos Ski Valley.

Palacio de Marquesa

Contrary to what one might expect, ski season is not a high season for the town of Taos. While Christmas festivities do draw some guests, most visitors opt to stay at the ski mountain, meaning you can get surprisingly reasonable rates at nice digs right in town, like this boutique inn owned by New Mexico-based Heritage Hotels. Make sure and look for a place within walking distance of Taos Plaza, the center of holiday festivities.

Ristras

A common decoration throughout the state, chile pepper ristras are naturally perfect for Christmas, thanks to the bold natural red and green of the chiles. Helpful hint: If you want a ristra that's more than a decoration, as in one you can actually eat, make sure and get one that's not varnished. Less shiny, but much easier on the digestive tract.

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