Best Things to Do in December in Santa Fe

Come to Santa Fe for the Holidays: It's Nothing Short of Magical

The word that best describes Santa Fe at Christmas is ‘magical’. The official start to this festival of lights is the annual Christmas tree lighting in the historic Santa Fe Plaza. The festive event, held the day after Thanksgiving, draws lots of folks. Downtown is alight as is the historic East Side (including Canyon Road) and the Guadalupe and Railyard Districts. You’ll find more lights at the Santa Fe Botanic Garden on Museum Hill, starting the first Wednesday of December when their annual Glow event begins. The holiday season in The City Different also brings concerts, the Aspen-Santa Fe Ballet’s annual The Nutcracker, the Canyon Road Christmas Eve Farolito Walk and dances at the Indian Pueblos. Want to shop? Besides unique boutiques, there’s SWAIA’s Winter Indian Market and other holiday sales including Recycle Santa Fe offering handcrafted items that make unique gifts. The city (originally named La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís), is a town that remains strongly Catholic. Religious events such as Las Posadas and Midnight Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi are not to be missed. If you want to get an even earlier start to the holiday season, there’s Holiday Pie Mania. Bid on scrumptious pies for your holiday table, baked and donated by local chefs (and you get to taste before you bid). And if it snows during the holidays: nirvana! Check dates and times before you go as things change from year to year.


Holiday Pie Mania
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Holidays mean food. Holiday Pie Mania, a pre-Thanksgiving event is held on a November Saturday afternoon at Builders Source Appliance Gallery, is a benefit for The Food Depot, Santa Fe's local food bank. The event offers a great way to secure your holiday pies in advance. Each participating chef makes his or her signature pie for the crowd to sample. Past pies have ranged from variations on pecan and pumpkin to those with New Mexico green chile to chocolate confections and beyond. You never know what these creative bakers will come up with and that's half the fun. The highlight of the afternoon is the pie auction. The gathered pie-eaters get into the spirit so bidding can be brisk, but it's for a good cause. Each chef produces one pie that is sold on the spot and two that the winners can order for the holidays.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Holiday Pie Mania, a festive seasonal food event, comes at a time when things are quiet in Santa Fe. If you're here, check it out.

Billie's expert tip: If you want to buy a pie to take home with you or bid on a "future pie" for the holidays, arrive early and scope out the offerings before the auction and pick your favorite(s). As with any auction, decide what your top offer is and stick with it.

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Aspen Santa Fe Ballet - The Nutcracker
Photo courtesy of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

One December weekend each year, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performs Tchaikovsky's popular Christmas ballet, "The Nutcracker". Join Clara and the Nutcracker Prince as they journey to the magical Land of Snow and Land of Sweets where they're greeted by the beautiful Sugar Plum Fairy and many others including the Russian, Spanish and Arabian dancers. The mostly traditional production takes an unexpected turn in the second act with the addition of circus performers including an aerialist, to the mix. The entire ballet is enchanting, but this unexpected twist mesmerizes the audience, largely made up of children who sit entranced in their seats through the entire performance. Another whimsical touch: over 10 pounds of confetti is strewn around the stage during the show. The small company expands for this special production which includes 70 children and 60 professional dancers. Past guest artists have come from as far away as Russia and China.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet does a first-rate production of the popular holiday ballet "The Nutcracker" that is worth seeing.

Billie's expert tip: The Lensic is an intimate theater seating just over 800 people. Most seats are good, though, of course, the closer the better. There are a few seats on the extreme left and right in the front orchestra section that are often great deals, depending on the show.

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Midnight Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Midnight Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi is an event. The stunning Romanesque edifice combines features of traditional cathedrals with New Mexican Spanish Colonial art influences such as retablos (religious paintings done on wood). The doors open at 10:30pm and the church fills up quickly. If you want a seat, arrive early. While you're waiting for Lessons and Carols begin at 11pm, head for the Conquistadora Chapel to the left at the front of the cathedral. The only remaining section of the original parroquia (parish) church, it's home to La Conquistadora. The oldest statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the United States, she survived the Pueblo Revolt and brought back to the city in 1692. By the time Mass starts, there is not a seat in the house.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: The pomp and circumstance of Midnight Mass at Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi's the perfect way to end Christmas Eve in Santa Fe.

Billie's expert tip: When entering the Cathedral, look up. At the top of the doorway arch there's a triangle containing the Tetragrammaton (Hebrew name for God). Local lore abounds with stories of why it's there. The one thing they agree upon is that Santa Fe's Jewish community contributed to the Cathedral's building fund.

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Annual Christmas Open House at the New Mexico Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of New Mexico Art Museum

The Annual Christmas Open House at the New Mexico Art Museum, started in 1983, is a favorite with children of all ages. The highlight of the afternoon is the wonderful, whimsical Baumann Marionettes, made by renowned woodblock artist Gustav Baumann for his daughter in the 1930s. They come out of storage every year for this holiday event. The whimsical puppets perform two plays for children. There's also a treasure hunt to find Freckles and his twin brother hiding somewhere in the museum galleries. The highlight of the afternoon comes with a twist: kids can have a photo taken of Santa in their lap. Create your own puppet, sing Christmas carols and enjoy holiday refreshments. The event, held on a December Sunday, runs from 1 to 4pm. While there visit the galleries; the museum has a great collection of New Mexican art.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: The Annual Christmas Open House is a Santa Fe a beloved local tradition and fun for the entire family.

Billie's expert tip: If you take young kids to the puppet shows, put them up front near the stage so they can see these amazing marionettes perform from close-up. They will be able to see the facial details clearly. Each of these characters has its own personality carved into its face.

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GLOW - A Winter Holiday Lights Event
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

GLOW-- A Winter Holiday Lights Event takes place at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden up on the city's Museum Hill. This festival of lights runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from the first Thursday in December to the Saturday following New Year's Day from 5 to 8pm. The Garden becomes a winter wonderland lit by thousands of lights, including LED, floodlights, kinetic lights that move rhythmically and fairy lights in plants and trees. Saturday nights bring bracing hot toddies to ward off the cold. Santa will be in attendance and there will be live music. Arrive right at opening and watch the spectacular high desert sunset that's been drawing artists and others to Santa Fe for over 100 years. The transition from day to night will enhance your experience. If you're lucky, it might snow, making your evening even more magical. There is an admission charge.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Christmas is about lights. The Santa Fe Botanic Garden's unique light show will amaze and amuse the entire family.

Billie's expert tip: Come back and visit the Santa Fe Botanic Garden during the day, too. While you might not expect it, parts of the garden are alive and beautiful in winter. High desert evergreens, grasses and cactuses give visitors pleasure year-round.

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Christmas at the Palace
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

The annual Christmas at the Palace, held at the Palace of the Governors (the oldest government building in continuous use in the USA), is a popular event for locals. Started in 1985, it's always on the Friday before Las Posadas. Santa Feans fill the over historic building and its courtyard, greeting friends as they go. It's a great event for tourists, too. The Palace, now part of the New Mexico History Museum, lights up for the occasion. Walk through the rooms, look at the exhibitions which include Spanish Colonial Art and listen to live music played by both children's and professional groups. Head for the courtyard, lit by luminarias and farolitos, for hot drinks, biscochitos (the official New Mexico State Cookie) and of course, Santa Claus (and Mrs. Claus). You'll even find seasonally-themed piñatas hanging, befitting the city's Mexican heritage. This event is a sure winner for the entire family.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Christmas at the Palace is a traditional holiday event in Santa Fe and a must on any holiday itinerary.

Billie's expert tip: Get up early the next day and head for the New Mexico History Museum. The Young Native Artists Holiday Show & Sale offers handmade traditional art created by the next generation of Native artists (all children and grandchildren of the Palace portal artists). Admission is free.

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Lighting of Christmas Decorations on Santa fe Plaza
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Christmas in Santa Fe is enchanting. There's something very special about this historic city when it's aglow with fairy lights and electric farolitos. If it snows, this magical winter wonderland is complete. No place is more special this time of year than the historic Plaza, home of the city's official Christmas trees. The park's evergreens in the small park are festooned with colored lights and there are a lot of them. The official Christmas tree lighting takes place on the night after Thanksgiving. It's done with a lot of fanfare. Arrive early; pre-glow entertainment starts at 3pm and Santa arrives via vintage fire truck at 4. When darkness falls the switch is thrown, and viola, the square is transformed. There's also a menorah lighting ceremony on the first night of Chanukah. Candles burn in the contemporary menorah for the holiday's eight nights. The lights stay up until New Year's Day.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: This is the official start of the Christmas season in Santa Fe and The City Different takes this holiday seriously.

Billie's expert tip: It can get cold out there while waiting for the tree lighting. Dress warmly! Put on your thermal underwear, a warm hat, gloves and even lined boots to ward off the chill. Bring a thermos of hot chocolate; it's both festive and warming.

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Las Posadas
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Las Posadas, a candlelight procession usually held in mid-December, is an important Christmas event in Santa Fe. It's the reenactment of Joseph and Mary's search for a room at an inn in Bethlehem. The procession begins at the historic Palace of the Governors (the oldest government building in the United States still in use) and wends its way around the Plaza, picking up people along the way. The holy couple stops at an "inn" and all of a sudden the devil pops out of the darkness in a flash of light. He gestures menacingly at the couple and their followers while screaming at them in 16th century Spanish. The crowd boos. This is done three more times (once at each side of the Plaza). The walk culminates in the Palace's courtyard where hot cider and biscochitos (the New Mexico State Cookie) are served to the chilled crowd.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Las Posadas is one of the most important events of the Santa Fe Christmas season and it's fun.

Billie's expert tip: Arrive early to make sure you can find a parking space – this is a popular event. Also, dress warmly; it gets chilly once the sun goes down. Bring a warm drink with you to help keep you warm.

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Canyon Road Christmas Eve Farolito Walk
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Christmas Eve in Santa Fe is unlike any other in the world. It seems like the entire city turns out for the annual Canyon Road Farolito Walk. The street (and adjacent ones) is closed and people take to the middle of the street. Farolitos (traditionally small paper bags filled with sand topped with a votive candle) line walkways and adobe walls. Some housetops, walks and walls boast "fauxlitos," the name locals have given to the electrified models. Luminarias (small piñon wood bonfires) are spaced randomly along the street. The festivities start at dusk (around 5pm) and run until around 10pm (depending on and how late the crowd stays). Some places offer hot cider or hot chocolate to warm cold bodies. People spontaneously break into Christmas carols along the way. The atmosphere is festive and full of good holiday cheer.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: This once a year event where Canyon Road is all decked out with farolitos and luminarias is a must-do for visitors to Santa Fe.

Billie's expert tip: Go early! Canyon Road gets really crowded by 6pm and the crowds continue to grow for a couple of hours and then thin out. It's also easier to find parking in the lots at the PERA building on Paseo de Peralta if you go early.

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Meet Billie Frank

Billie Frank is a freelance travel, food and feature writer based in Santa Fe New Mexico. Her blog, Santa Fe Travelers, is a treasure trove of information on the oldest capital city in the...  More About Billie