High in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about an hour north of Albuquerque, Santa Fe is a rich blend of Pueblo, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures. While the city’s multicultural heritage is visible throughout the year, its spirit shines most brightly during the winter holidays.
Two New Mexican traditions that make the holidays in Santa Fe so magical are farolitos (“little lanterns”) and luminarias (“festival lights”). Farolitos are made by folding down the sides of a small paper bag, adding a scoop of sand, and striking a match to a tea light anchored by the sand. Luminarias are small bonfires constructed from pinon logs that add Christmas spirit while filling the air with a festive, piney smell. Farolitos are often referred to as luminarias outside of Northern New Mexico, so don’t let that throw you!
From the day after Thanksgiving and into the new year, these nine magical experiences in Santa Fe are sure to make your holidays bright.
1. Plaza Lighting Ceremony
The Day After Thanksgiving
In a one-square-block section at the heart of town, the historic Santa Fe Plaza has been a gathering place for centuries. Kick off the holiday season the day after Thanksgiving by observing the Christmas tree lighting gala at the plaza. This free, family-friendly event starts at 3 p.m. with Christmas carols, hot beverages, and cookies. Children know to listen for sirens because they signal Santa and Mrs. Claus’s arrival on a vintage fire truck.
As the sun sets, the flickering votive lights of farolitos add a soft glow to the November night until the flip of a switch illuminates the entire plaza with thousands of bulbs that brighten each night through New Year’s Day.
Although its date is based on a lunar calendar and can occur from late November to late December, Hanukkah also kicks off with a lighting ceremony in the plaza. Watch the first candle light the menorah while celebrating the first night of this eight-day Jewish holiday with live music, gelt, and latkes.
2. Christmas At The Palace Of The Governors
With views of the plaza lights, the Palace of the Governors has been hosting an annual Christmas party for more than 35 years. For one evening in early December, the courtyard of this single-story adobe structure, built for the early leaders of New Mexico, is filled with the warm glow of farolitos. Inside the 17th-century building, enjoy live music, hot cider, and biscochitos, a crisp anise- and citrus-flavored cookie dusted with cinnamon sugar. There is no fee to attend this holiday event.
Fun Fact: Biscochitos are the state cookie of New Mexico. If you want to take a dozen home with you, the best biscochitos in Santa Fe are at Sweet Santa Fe.
3. Las Posadas
Literally translated as “the inns,” Las Posadas is an important Hispanic holiday tradition commemorating Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. With a lantern to light their way, a young couple dressed in robes asks if there are rooms available at the first “inn” (the corner of the Plaza nearest to the Palace). In response to their inquiry, the devil jumps out of the darkness and yells at Jesus’s earthly father and pregnant mother as the crowd boos his unkind actions. The candlelit procession encircles the plaza, inquiring at the other three “inn” corners of the square until the search for a place to stay ends at the Palace courtyard as Christmas carols fill the air and hot cider warms the cold winter night.
4. GLOW Event At Santa Fe Botanical Garden
Weekends In December
The Santa Fe Botanical Garden on the western edge of Museum Hill is transformed into GLOW each December. Thousands of lights and large-scale illuminated displays convert an orchard of fruit trees and exhibits of native plants into a spectacular holiday celebration. Enjoy live music and sip a soothing hot toddy when you visit Thursdays through Saturdays throughout the month of December.
For the most spectacular views, arrive a bit before the doors open at 5 p.m. so you can watch the sunset and observe the lights in the twilight before they glimmer in the dark. Tickets are typically about $10 per adult, with discounts offered to seniors (65+) and active-duty military.
5. Christmas Music At The Loretto Chapel
The Week Before Christmas
Inside the 150-year-old, Gothic-style Loretto Chapel, the holidays are feted with a baroque Christmas performance. In the week leading up to Christmas Eve, the talented Santa Fe Pro Musica Baroque Ensemble performs a selection of music by baroque composers, and sopranos sing traditional Christmas carols. Sit in the wooden pews of the small chapel, and let the beautiful melodies surround you as they spiral toward the choir loft like the chapel’s Miraculous Staircase.
6. Dances At The Indian Pueblos
Throughout The Holidays
Throughout December, many local Pueblos hold tribal celebrations that they are willing to share with visitors. Wearing feathered headdresses, colorful clothing, and elaborate masks, Native Americans celebrate the winter solstice, the Catholic feast day honoring the Virgin Mary, and Christmas with Buffalo, Butterfly, and Matachines Dances.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, nearly all Pueblos hold dances, midnight Masses, and bonfires that reinforce their deep connection to the earth and all its plants, animals, and resources. If you are fortunate to attend a tribal celebration, remember that these dances are religious ceremonies and not performances. Be sure you understand and observe the established etiquette when you attend a Native American dance, including not snapping photographs or recording the ceremonies without prior permission.
Pro Tip: You may wonder why Christmas is celebrated by Native Americans in Northern New Mexico. When the Spanish arrived in this area centuries ago, they worked hard to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism. As a result, today’s Pueblo people celebrate the holidays by blending their tribal traditions with a scoop of Spanish culture and a dash of the Catholic faith.
7. Canyon Road Farolito Walk
While touring holiday lights is a common tradition in many communities across the United States, the Santa Fe version is truly magical. Just southeast of the Plaza, a stretch of Canyon Road and nearby streets are closed to traffic, allowing pedestrians to spill into the roadway. Instead of strings of colorful lights, the sidewalks, stone walls, and rooflines are filled with the soft glow of thousands of farolitos and luminarias, with their pine-like aroma, further light the way.
Road closures typically begin around 4:30 p.m., and, as the sun slips behind the horizon, the farolitos and luminarias come to life. Parades of people begin filling the streets around 5 p.m. and begin tapering off by 9 p.m. as they prepare to attend church services or head home to continue their Christmas celebrations.
Pro Tip: If you’re not staying at a Santa Fe hotel within walking distance of this event, the city provides a free shuttle to Canyon Road from the South Capitol Rail Runner Station off of Cordova Road.
8. Midnight Mass At The Saint Francis Cathedral
With a large Catholic population, many Santa Feans follow their stroll down Canyon Road past the statue of St. Francis and through the ornate, wooden double doors of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi to attend midnight Mass. The cathedral opens at 10:30 p.m. and the wooden pews are quickly filled with the faithful ready to celebrate the birth of their savior.
9. New Year’s Eve At The Plaza
After the winter solstice, Christmas, and Hanukkah celebrations have wrapped for the year, Northern New Mexicans are ready to welcome the new year. Gas heaters are set up around the historic Santa Fe Plaza, and roaring luminarias fill the air with the smell of the holidays in Northern New Mexico. While enjoying live music, celebrants add their dreams and hopes for the new year to a memorial banner. Food trucks line the square, and hot chocolate and biscochitos are provided at this free, family-friendly event.
As the clock approaches midnight, Santa Fe embraces its reputation as “The City Different” by dropping nothing. Instead, a Zia sun sign, the Native American symbol associated with the Land of Enchantment, rises toward the heavens as fireworks fill the night sky.
Bonus Recommendation: Ski Santa Fe
Late Fall Through Early Spring, Depending On Weather
When I was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, a group of classmates and I would frequently convert our wintertime class-free Fridays into a day trip to the ski slopes. Santa Fe is just an hour north of Albuquerque, and it was easy to climb the remaining 16 miles up the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from downtown Santa Fe and be on the slopes by 9 a.m.
Not only are lift tickets affordable, lines short, and runs designed for all skill levels, but the high altitude destination of Santa Fe is showered in sunshine 300 days a year. That’s why, years later, Ski Santa Fe is still my first choice for ski vacations with my family. For other affordable experiences nearby, consider our list outlining how to visit New Mexico on a budget.
Beginning with opening day on the ski slopes and running through the New Year, these nine magical holiday experiences in Santa Fe will help fill the colder, darker days of winter with gratitude, light, and good cheer.