dressed in holiday style
In El Paso and throughout neighboring Southern New Mexico, city plazas and main streets are becoming seasonal attractions
By Lisa Kay Tate
There is something about gathering in a public square, or strolling down Main Street during the Christmas season that brings people together during the holidays.
Both El Paso and Las Cruces have organized more events in the last few years to take advantage of restored and renovated historic downtown areas and plazas, with both cities staging “WinterFest” events.
Mesilla’s famed plaza has long been a mecca for holiday events, and other historic downtowns in New Mexico communities such as Silver City, Hillsboro, Truth or Consquences and Socorro also serve as centers of Christmas celebrations.
Whether the surroundings are urban or small town, desert or mountain, area residents won’t have far to go to find holiday spirit this season.
Downtown to Mission Trail
Since its reopening in 2016 after extensive renovations, San Jacinto Plaza has returned to its historic role as the heart of El Paso and the epicenter of Downtown’s major outdoor festivals. Those include the six-week-long WinterFest, which spans from San Jacinto Plaza to the ice skating rink at Arts Festival Plaza.
Winterfest was a huge hit last year, with more than 18,000 skaters at the rink alone. El Paso Live’s Kris Kringle Kafé and other venues served about 636 gallons of hot chocolate.
Now in its third year, WinterFest gives El Paso’s Downtown area a holiday makeover from the week of Thanksgiving through the first week of January.
The central draw of WinterFest are the lights around San Jacinto Plaza, with photo ops ranging from the El Paso Electric WinterFest Tree and Providence Children’s Hospital giant snow globe, to religious and cultural displays such as a nativity scene and a menorah.
There is daily ice skating just a block away at the Hospitals of Providence Ice Skating Rink. There are also discounted nights for military, clothing drives, and live entertainment, depending on the day of the week.
“Open seven days a week, the WinterFest rink also offered a variety of events throughout the season such as an ‘Ice, Ice, ‘80’s Party’, Skate with Santa, Let it Snow Day and more,” stated last year’s summary of the event. Featured attractions included a Winter Market with area vendors, mini donut depo and free movies in The Plaza Theatre on selected days hosted by El Paso Community Foundation and El Paso Live.
This season will also celebrate the return of El Paso Streetcars, with downtown at the center of the 4.8 mile route that extends from South El Paso to UTEP. WinterFest visitors can take advantage of free streetcar rides Fridays through Sundays through Jan. 6.
Sun Metro will also offer the WinterFest Express during the weekend, and the city’s new professional soccer team, El Paso Locomotives FC, will help sponsor the new Sun City Express children’s train rides.
WinterFest not only gives El Pasoans a one-stop holiday experience but also provides a magnet for tourists, noted Destination El Paso General Manager Bryan Crowe.
“We want to put on our best showcase for those visitors to our beautiful city,” he said at the kickoff for WinterFest.
Those who want a small-town holiday plaza experience but stay within El Paso County can head down Socorro Road for the annual Luminarias along the Mission Trail Saturday, Dec. 22. Thousands of luminarias will line historic Veterans Memorial Plaza in San Elizario, with caroling, and posadas adding to the Christmas flavor. The event also features a Christmas bazaar and entertainment.
Also in San Elizario, the Adobe Horseshoe Theatre has just reopened its doors and will host a dinner performance of “The Nutcracker” Saturday, Dec. 15.
The Lights of Las Cruces…and Mesilla
In Las Cruces, the recently restored Main Street area, with its Plaza de Las Cruces gathering place, also serves as popular attraction for both residents and tourists, said Downtown Las Cruces Partnership Executive Director Jennifer Garcia Kozlowski.
“We’re always doing a little more all the time to bring people to the area,” she said. “Thanks to the efforts of various community members, the Plaza gets decked out during the holiday season for guests to visit any time of day.”
The official holiday tree lighting festivities are Dec. 1. WinterFest activities are 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21. Also, a “Christmas in Las Cruces” event hosted by Las Cruces Main Street and Calvary Baptist Church is 5 to 6 p.m. Christmas Eve, with Christmas music, hot chocolate, and a candlelight service.
After Christmas, the Las Cruces plaza area will also close out the holiday season with Las Cruces’ annual New Year’s Eve ChileDrop.
“This is the big New Year’s Eve event in the area, and we’re hoping to make this the premiere New Year’s Eve event in the entire Southwest,” Garcia Kozlowski said.
This year’s event begins at nine with music by Caliente, with the dropping at midnight of the lighted “chile.”
Next door to Las Cruces is the historic Town of Mesilla, whose famed plaza has long been a holiday destination, with its shops and restaurants as well as special events.
Events start with the Christmas tree lighting planned for Dec. 7 this year, and culminate Christmas Eve when the plaza is lined with luminarias. Both events offer caroling, refreshments, shopping opportunities and plenty of photo ops of the historic Plaza, San Albino Church and surrounding homes and businesses in full Christmas mode.
“Each Christmas, with the help of the Los Leones de Mesilla club, the Town unfolds 2,500 paper bags, puts sand in them and places the candle inside prior to the placement of the bags on Christmas Eve around the Mesilla plaza and some surrounding streets,” Community and Special Events Coordinator Irene Parra writes regarding the Christmas Eve tradition. She added that “the holiday events entail the involvement of the entire community. Even the Christmas tree is decorated by ornaments made from students at Mesilla Elementary School.”
One of the most photographed sites along the plaza during the holidays is “Josephina’s Old Gate,” now the site of a café and inn. Long-time Mesilla resident Josephina was a “dynamic and outgoing woman who lived here for nearly 35 years and established the Luminaria Tradition of Mesilla,” according to the town’s official information. The home was a common gathering place for the community for several years, open houses there were a holiday tradition. The spot is still popular during Christmas Eve events today.
The plaza has acquired a national reputation as a holiday destination.
“Mesilla Plaza is beautiful on Christmas Eve when luminarias/farolitos are lighted after 4 p.m.,” one TripAdvisor contributor wrote. “These extend out to Highway 28 to the edge of Mesilla. The Plaza is decorated to an extent with a tree and lights, but Christmas Eve it becomes ‘the destination!’”
Southern NM holiday road trips
Many of Southern New Mexico’s other communities offer reasons to take a weekend winter drive to view historic main streets and decorated parks and plazas.
Silver City’s Christmas and holiday season kicks off the weekend after Thanksgiving with its annual Christmas Lights Parade, and the holiday glow remains for the rest of the season.
Silver City MainStreet and Town of Silver City volunteers decorate the light poles of the historic downtown. This year merchants will participate in a window decorating contest, giving visitors one more reason to stroll around.
The Silver City Museum on Broadway next to downtown has hosted a Victorian-style Christmas event for more than 30 years, and attracts both residents and visitors. This year’s activities are Dec. 14.
Silver City has a “very walkable” Downtown, said Silver City MainStreet Executive Director Charmeine Wait. “You can park at the Visitor Center, and shop, eat and even hike in the area all day long,” she said. Downtown Silver City also offers two historic hotels, the restored Silco Theatre and Big Ditch Park.
A new feature for visitors anytime of year is the “Stories From Our Streets” online tour. Guests can take self-guided walking tours of the area, and log into brief audio histories of the various buildings.
Other Southern New Mexico plazas and main street areas where people can find holiday cheer include the City of Socorro. The annual Luminarias on the Plaza, Christmas Lights Parade and art stroll are Dec. 1 along the historic Plaza, which remains decorated throughout the season.
The Socorro Fire Department also hosts its annual Matanza (barbecue) in the plaza Dec. 1, and the Plaza and historic district will be transformed into a “Winter Wonderland” for Christmas Eve.
Ruidoso’s Festival of Lights Parade at the start of the month runs the middle of town.
Ruidoso’s Old West neighbor, Lincoln, features an annual Christmas Eve Luminaria event throughout the community, including a visit from Santa on a longhorn steer.
In Cloudcroft, the Santa Land bonfires are usually held the Saturday after Thanksgiving and in mid-December at Zenith Park, and holiday events at The Lodge resort are also popular. The Community Christmas tree along Burro Avenue (the village’s “Main Street”) will be lit Dec. 1 with a bonfire, visit from Santa and refreshments. Other holiday events along Burro Avenue include store window decoration competitions.
Those traveling along NM Highway 54 on Christmas Eve will also encounter luminarias along the main streets in Tularosa, Carrizozo and Alamogordo. This year also marks the 2nd annual Christmas Tree lighting for Alamogordo in Washington Park.
One Main Street area that has been increasing its holiday offerings is Truth of Consequences. For more than ten years the city has started the season with a Downtown celebration with decorations, Santa photos, music and refreshments at various businesses and other holiday activities at the Visitor Center.
“On Dec 7, we’ll have our Old-Fashioned Christmas, that starts with a tree lighting (just off Main Street) and is followed by our Parade of Lights,” said MainStreet T or C Executive Director Linda DeMarino. “This is our 12th annual celebration, and the third year for the parade.”
Two of the downtown area’s parks just off Main Street are also sites of holiday celebrations. Evelyn Renfro Park is home of the tree lighting, and Healing Waters Park will be adorned for the holidays.
On Dec. 8, nearby Elephant Butte’s Luminaria Walk features thousands of luminarias along the trails and “campsites” offering regional or seasonal refreshments hosted by various nonprofits and other groups.
DeMarino said the area’s famed hot springs appeal to holiday visitors as well, who enjoy the combination of winter air while soaking in therapeutic pools.
“Truth or Consequences is special, because along Main Street alone there are seven hot springs hotels,” she said.
Nearby communities of Kingston, Hillsboro and Monticello all offer events or holiday shopping. Hillsboro is best known for its Christmas in the Hill Country events the first Saturday of December.
Christmas IN the Plaza
Downtown El Paso’s Plaza Theatre for Performing Arts, just next to San Jacinto Plaza, will be one busy place during the holidays, with holiday films coinciding with WinterFest activities, to special Broadway Christmas shows and seasonal music and dance performances.
Here’s a look at some of the holiday happenings in The Plaza:
• El Paso Community Foundation’s Plaza Classic Film Festival and El Paso Live will again show free Holiday Movies on selected Sundays. Local organists Ken Fedorick, Richard Garven and Laurie Koval will perform on the Plaza’s restored Wyler Mighty Wurlitzer Organ before each movie. Films include “Miracle on 34th Street” on Dec. 9, “A Christmas Story” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” Dec. 16, and “Frozen” and “Ice Age” Jan. 6.
• Broadway in El Paso offers a special holiday performance of “Christmas Wonderland’ Holiday Spectacular Dec. 8 with a nostalgic journey of holiday favorites like “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland” and more.
• Dave Koz’ s “A Smooth Jazz Christmas” returns to El Paso for his 21st annual Christmas show Dec. 13. Guests include Mindi Abair, Jonathan Butler, Keiko Matsui, and Shelea.
• Mariachi Sol de Mexico presents its vholiday show, “A Merry-Achi Christmas” Dec. 17 with a fusion of the traditional holiday Mexican and American Christmas songs and carols.
• The Great Russian Nutcracker’s “Dove of Peace Tour” returns for three performances Dec. 22 and Dec. 23, as part of its more than 100-city tour.
Copyright 2018 by Cristo Rey Communications