If you live in a part of the country where a white Christmas is a given part of the holiday “décor,” it may be hard to imagine a Christmas season where temperatures may still be downright balmy, and cacti instead of evergreens dot the winter landscape. Fortunately for those who make their homes in the American southwest, there are many Christmas traditions and decorating ideas that make a desert Christmas as fun and beautiful to behold as any winter weather celebration.
One of the most beautiful Christmas traditions we find in places like Santa Fe or Tucson is the lighting of luminarias. These lights, which resemble a little paper box, open at the top and pouring out warm brightness, have long been used to light the way to midnight mass, especially in regions where street lighting is something of a recent development. Today the luminarias often light up walkways to the front doors of adobe houses or light the path to an outdoor holiday party. Wherever you decorate with luminarias (for they’ve become a nationwide trend in holiday décor) be sure they are not placed at random or staggered in a garden like other outdoor lighting may be. They are most beautiful and deliver their message best (“follow us!”) when they follow some path, be it a driveway or a sidewalk.
Outdoor parties are one reason a southwestern Christmas can be more fun than you think. Instead of gathering indoors all evening, some desert dwellers choose to have a bonfire with friends and family. Bonfires, like luminarias, also used to mark the spot of a Christmas mass, making the mission or church visible for miles around. With a few heat lamps and a big grill, bonfires can even turn into Christmas dinner barbeques if the weather is still nice. Many southwestern climates do not experience bitter weather until well into January.
Some of the more festive and funny traditions of the southwest include decorating with chili peppers instead of holly, and trimming a cactus or even a tumbleweed instead of a tree. Really adventurous decorators swear by the “spraypainted tumbleweed.” Why get pricked up trying to decorate the thing when you can just spraypaint it red and green? Despite their well developed sense of humor about their warm weather holiday, southwestern folks also indulge in familiar traditions, like covering the house in Christmas lights, putting Rudolph out on the lawn, and surprising kids with a visit from Santa.
An interesting development in Christmas vacationing may make the Christmas traditions of the southwest more and more commonplace across the country. Older people and newly retired baby boomers often seek warmer weather for their winter homes, and these “snowbirds” have been known to increase the population of desert cities by half over. As their grandchildren come to visit at Christmas and take home stories of Utah Yules and Arizona advents, surely more and more of us will think of the Christmas tumbleweed as nothing too unusual.