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Christmas in the American Southwest

written by: Eric W. Vogt•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 12/21/2010

The Southwestern region of the United States is a blend of cultures, perhaps more fused than in any other part of the country. The landscape and cultures have created more of a salad than a melting pot.

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    The Southwest

    The American Southwest is a fascinating region. Its landscapes are harsh and unforgiving. The people who settled it were hardy and industrious. The First Nations, or native Americans, were diverse in their customs and languages, although perhaps a little less so in terms of their foods -- due to what plants and animals are found there. Although many people think of this area as sandy desert, there are large portions that are so high in elevation that there is a lot of snow. But let's talk about Christmas. The first Christians in the region were, of course, the Spaniards, who arrived long before the English ever landed at Plymouth Rock.

    The Catholic traditions of Spain quickly became fused with native ones as the native Americans converted to Christianity. Thus, in many respects, Christmas in the Southwest can seem like Christmas in Mexico -- but other cultural influences, from Germans (with the Christmas tree and Santa) and the English (with the Yule log), for instance, blend with them and create a multi-layered season of festivities. Almost everyone in the Southwest, whatever their ethnicity, places farolitos along their walkways. Farolitos are often as simple as tea-lights or candles inside paper bags or some other translucent material. Many people also participate in the posadas, a very community-wide affair at times, in which people re-enact the journey of Mary and Joseph in search of an inn. Turned away at several doors with "aqui no hay posadas" ("here there is no [room at the] inn"), finally they arrive at the house where the party is taking place and where a nativity scene is often elaborately set up. Tamales are a traditional Christmas food now for many people, thanks to the prevalence of the Spanish and native cultures.

    To this basic mix of Spanish Catholicism and native ingredients and aesthetics were added the customs and foods of later groups. The Czechs and Poles brought their foods. The evolution of Anglo cultures in Texas brought what can be summarized as a "cowboy" culture, complete with dances, foods and drink, but they too absorbed much of what the Spanish and the natives had already established.

    Finally, Christmas as celebrated in the Southwest is colorful, full of spices, sometimes hot, sometimes very cold, and always loaded with every one's food traditions -- more so than Thanksgiving ever was.