Janet Sheridan: A Las Cruces Christmas
All of my Christmases have been spent in small towns where cars creep along slick streets through days cold and brief beneath mountains dressed in white, where pine trees cluttered with puffs of snow tower tall under velvet nights of near stars. Frosted church lawns display nativity scenes curtained by snowstorms, and warm homes leak the spicy smell of baking across snow-bound yards. Christmas shoppers wear coats, children wave their arms for balance as they slide on iced sidewalks, and frozen ponds welcome skaters of polished and dubious skill.
As a result, I’ve always been chilled to the bone while making merry. Christmas cold grips my fingertips and toes so hard they ache, and my red, icy nose drips. I’ve worn scarves, earmuffs, hoods, headbands, and a plethora of hats, including a plaid cap with flaps my brother outgrew. All failed to keep my ears warm. l now dress in layers of clothing that protect me when I’m outside and make me hot and sweaty when I go inside, which turns running errands — dashing in and out of various locations to a car that never warms up — into a clammy nightmare.
Then, last year, Joel and I spent Christmas in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where the average high temperature in the month of December is 78 degrees — one degree higher than Craig’s June average. When a day finally managed to get cold enough to snow, the local news featured an excited reporter in a parka asking pedestrians how they liked it. Everybody interviewed responded with a variation of “I love it,” or “It puts me in the mood for Christmas!” When the camera drew back to show the severity of the storm, it revealed a few puny flakes swirling around people’s ankles before melting into the asphalt.
But I was warm for the first Christmas ever: no runny nose, no icy fingertips, no numb ears, no steaming layers. One day in early December, while strolling on dry sidewalks through a 70-degree afternoon beneath cloudless skies, I met a lady in a Santa hat with flashing red bulbs hanging from her ears accompanied by two small dogs wearing red sweaters patterned with pine trees. Smiling, she sang out, “Merry Christmas,” but her cheerful greeting, her attire, and the dogs in holiday sweaters seemed so out of place my first thought was, “Christmas? Is she daft?”
But soon, I began to notice the beauty of Las Cruces. Most days, the Organ Mountains to the east glow with a spectrum of soft colors created by the setting sun. The Rio Grande river flows along the city’s southern edge, its wide riverbed dry in the winter except for a small channel of water moving slowly in the center. Fields and groves of pecan trees still clinging to their leaves dot the outskirts of the city, and its landscape is graced with blossoming trees, bushes, and shrubs, many still showing evidence of their flowers in December.
As Christmas Eve approached, I stopped looking for the comfort of my familiar Christmases and began paying attention to the beauty of a southwest Christmas: cactus wrapped with colorful chili-pepper lights, carols sung to a guitar in a mixture of English and Spanish, tolling church bells calling people to mission-style churches, living nativities visited by reverent families, and hundreds of luminarias embracing the city in their soft glow.
The holiday season finished with a flourish on New Years Eve as a cheerful crowd gathered on the central plaza to count down and cheer when the stroke of midnight signaled the drop of a giant green chili.
I, too, cheered. I cheered for a Las Cruces Christmas, for the good folks who celebrated the important things, for luminarias and decorated cactus, for carols sung in crowded churches, for the chili drop, and for a festive lady in a Santa hat who greeted a startled stranger with “Merry Christmas.”
Janet Sheridan’s book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at auntbeulah.com the first and 15th of every month.