“It’s older than Christmas!” The statement sticks out like a sore thumb to this history buff. My friend Sam and I had taken two weeks off, following Labor Day in 1971, to swing through New Mexico. The main purpose was to check out a few of the archaeological digs that dot the state. We decided to take a detour to relax in Santa Fe. We had a rough idea that the town was a hotbed of history and legend, but we just wanted to enjoy Santa Fe as a stopover, nothing more.
During dinner at a small cafe, our waitress asked if we planned to enjoy the Fiesta taking place the next day. Sam’s quizzical expression must have given her permission to invite us to the Fiesta de Santa Fe. That was when she said we simply had to attend because “it’s older than Christmas”. Who could resist such an outrageous invitation? Of course Sam and I adjusted our plans.
Later, in our motel room, one of us must have decided to analyze the older than Christmas claim. The waitress had told us that the celebration went back to the very late 1600s. Sam remembered that the American celebration of Christmas, as we know it, was not fashionable until around the time of the Declaration of Independence, in the mid 1770s. In fact, Christmas was actually against the law in Boston until 1681. The Puritans recognized Yuletide as a pagan holiday, and wanted nothing to do with it. Evidently, the waitress’ claim must be true.
The next day, a Catholic priest seated himself next to Sam and me, at the cafe. Sam brought up the Christmas claim during our casual conversation and the priest filled in some details. I hauled out my trip diary to take notes. The cleric said that Fiesta de Santa Fe is one of those holidays that has both secular and religious roots. He confirmed that the festival is indeed the oldest such holiday in the entire United States.
The Fiesta began in 1712. The origins of the beginnings are a bit fuzzy because of the neglect of Spanish colonial records after the Mexican-American War. Evidently the Spanish colonists and conquistadors were chased out of Santa Fe in 1680 during a Pueblo Indian revolt. 13 years later, Don Diego de Vargas led a party back into Santa Fe to peacefully restore Spanish control over the town. Of course, there is some historical disagreement as to how peaceful the resettlement actually was.
As was the practice, in those days, de Vargas La Conquistadora, a small statue of the Virgin Mary was honored. As tribute to her, de Vargas had promised a procession if continued success could be granted. The first procession then took place in 1692 to honor the pledge. Eight years after de Vargas’ death, in 1712, the Santa Fe City Council signed the proclamation to establish a yearly commemoration.
Exact details of the earliest celebrations of Fiesta de Santa Fe are a bit fuzzy, but it is believed that the festival was celebrated pretty much as a Catholic feast day. The statue, La Conquistadora, which was brought to Santa Fe by Franciscans in 1625, always played a major part of the event. There would be the religious elements in the morning followed by feasting and some secular celebrations afterwards.
In the 1880s, the event began to evolve into a more modern holiday event. Secular events began to outshine the religious aspects of Fiesta de Santa Fe. The first overtly secular Fiesta took place in 1883 when promoters conceived of something called the “Tertio-Millenial Exposition”. The expo supposedly commemorated the 333rd year since the founding of Santa Fe. In reality, 1883 was actually the 273rd anniversary of the town. The actual 333rd anniversary took place in 1943.
The Fiesta had become a mainstream, commercial event, designed to promote tourism and business interests in the town and the rest of New Mexico. By the early 1900s, the celebrations included ice cream socials and picnics in the manner of community gatherings generally popular in the US, at that time in history.
After the First World War, a redefinition of the Fiesta transformed it into a “celebration of Santa Fe’s Tricultural Heritage”. The local population, especially Hispanics, was unhappy with the shift in focus. Their holiday had been redefined by non-Santa Feans.
Hence, in the 1920s Hispanics, artists, free-thinkers, and writers created their own festival called “El Pasa Tiempo”. It is this festival that eventually morphed into the current mode of celebration of Fiesta de Santa Fe. The “Tiempo” celebration is also when the traditional burning of Will Shuster’s “Zozobra” began.
El Zozobra (anxiety) is a marionette likeness of “Old Man Gloom”. People write their worries onto slips of paper then leave them in the gloom box at the Santa Fe newspaper. During the Fiesta de Santa Fe, the idol and the gloom papers are ignited. The burning of El Zozobra marks the first day of the three-day Fiesta de Santa Fe.
Such is the ever-evolving Fiesta de Santa Fe, the holiday that is older than Christmas.