Just as children excitedly venture door to door through darkened neighborhoods on bone-chilling journeys to solicit Halloween treats, the youth of Northern New Mexico used to participate in a similarly enthralling tradition on Christmas morning — and the macabre was most definitely not the reason. Instead, these niños were partaking in a Christmas Day tradition known to many elder norteños as Mis Crismes, which oftentimes was just as exciting to the rural homeowners as it was for the children.
“Mis Crismes was real common here in the Pojoaque Valley,” said Gail Martinez, who grew up practicing the now mostly obsolete tradition with her siblings while growing up in the Jacona area in the 1950s and ‘60s. “We would get up early on Christmas morning and walk for miles and miles and miles to all the neighbors’ houses and sing Christmas carols. We were invited in.
“That was real Christmas! We looked forward to that every year. We had fun, laughing and walking.” Martinez said some of the neighbors then would feed whoever showed up at the door traditional Northern New Mexican dishes such as empanaditas, posole and red chile, tamales and bizcochitos. During each of the neighborly encounters, every child also was given a bag filled with goodies or any other items the homeowner deemed fit to give, such as pencils, erasers or other common household items.
“I remember we used to look forward to going to one particular neighbor’s house who we thought were rich,” Martinez said. “We used to see all the presents they would get and be in awe. [At home] we usually would only get one — or two, if we were lucky. I guess we sang pretty good because they always gave us a lot of stuff.
“They gave us bags full of nuts and candy and other stuff we usually didn’t get.” Martinez said by the time she and her siblings returned home hours later, they were usually all wet and cold from the waist-high snow and cold winter temperatures. But her now- 85-year-old mother, Mary Roybal-Woodson, would always have a warm house to return to and hot food and drinks ready for the children.
“There were only kids, no adults,” Martinez remembers. “We walked right through people’s yards — there weren’t very many fences back then. Our parents didn’t worry about us; they knew we’d be back.”
Treats delighted Depression-era children
Martinez was raised on the very same Roybal family land as her mother, who during the Great Depression years in the 1930s also partook in the Mis Crismes tradition and naturally passed it along to her children. Roybal-Woodson said most of the local families at the time were very cash poor and the children usually didn’t get a Christmas present at home. Instead, their gift was to get up as early as possible on Christmas morning and beat the other neighborhood kids to the punch on the Mis Crismes trail. Roybal-Woodson said the Pojoaque Valley children never failed to rise with the sun on Christmas morning, often in competition with each other, even after a late Christmas Eve with midnight Mass and all the activity going on at the historic Nambé church. And the night before Christmas was a busy one for them, indeed, with both young and old making and maintaining luminarias (small bonfires) at the school and the church, singing on the back of a pickup truck and finally gathering inside the church for midnight Mass. It wasn’t until the wee hours of the morning that the families would return home, only for the kids to rise just a few hours later.
“We didn’t expect gifts,” Roybal-Woodson said. “We’d go from house to house for Mis Crismes. Then, after all the children returned home, the family would walk across the road and chop down a Christmas tree. We’d bring it back home and decorate it with paper chains.” She distinctly remembers two sisters who lived nearby and always dressed in black, and whom everyone referred to as las viejitas (little old ladies). She recalls that the two elderly women always would give out the little sugar-covered, orange-slice candies. “They would always look forward to the kids to go by,” Roybal-Woodson said. “They were very poor.”
But the highlight for the Pojoaque Valley children during those Depression-era years was a visit to Jacona’s local store, which was owned by Pablo Sena, a pillar of the community and former Santa Fe County sheriff who was the closest thing to Santa Claus in that impoverished area. “[Pablo Sena] made sure he made bags for all the kids in the valley,” Roybal-Woodson remembers. “That was the highlight of Christmas, going to Don Pablo’s store and getting those treats.”
Pablo Sena’s granddaughter, Marquita Sena, still lives a stone’s throw away from where Pablo’s store was located, and she remembers her grandfather preparing for Mis Crismes. Some of the goodies are still fresh in Marquita’s mind, such as oranges and the hard ribbon candies and other Christmas candies that are difficult to find these days.
“Most of the kids would have the old flour sacks, and he would put the goodies right into their sacks,” Marquita fondly recalled. “I remember our family also preparing for all the kids coming to our house for Mis Crismes.”
Another nearby resident of the Pojoaque Valley also memorialized the Mis Crismes tradition. In 2002, “Mis Crismes: A story by Alfredo Lujan,” won The Santa Fe New Mexican‘s Holiday Short Story Contest. Lujan, who was raised in Nambé and also teaches English and coaches in Santa Fe, wrote a delightful story about his own childhood Mis Crismes experience.