If you could snap your fingers and travel back in time to Colorado’s oldest towns, much of the conversation might be on holiday preparations. Whose house is hosting festivities after midnight Mass? Who’s making the posole? The tamales? Are there wagons to pick up folks in case of snow?
This time of year, in Blanca, Fort Garland, Chama or San Luis---Colorado’s oldest town---similar conversations are taking place. The spirit of the season is certainly there but time and an inescapable reality have altered the celebrations.
Midnight Mass at the largest Catholic Church in the Valley is now an eight o’clock affair and the standing-room-only crowds that once were normal have slowly dwindled, leaving plenty of seats for everyone.
“We’re not getting as many people as we’d like,” said Brenda Vialpando, who lives in Chama but commutes to San Luis and works as church secretary at Sangre de Cristo Parish. Like the surrounding communities and countless small towns across the nation, “younger people have left the area for jobs and older people have passed on and there’s no one to replace them,” she said.
But despite the dilution of numbers, there’s been no diminution of the love of tradition. “Faith,” said Father Pat Valdez, “brings the community together.” Valdez, now a priest in Cortez, served as the spiritual leader in San Luis for 23 years. His name evokes reverence in San Luis. His legacy is the Stations of the Cross.
The Stations of the Cross are a thoughtful and spiritual monument located on a bluff just off the town’s main street. The site, more formally and known locally as “La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia (Hill of Piety and Mercy) is a depiction of the final hours in Christ’s life.
In year’s past, the Stations of the Cross were an essential part of the holiday tradition. But that, too, has changed. While there may be some who make it part of the season, for practical reasons, it’s no longer an essential stop. “It’s just too cold to go up there,” said Valdez. Valley temperatures this time of year can plunge to zero or below. Also, traversing the incline can be challenging even for the hale and hearty.
The two decades-plus Valdez spent in San Luis are years that are emblazoned with a tender, almost palpable reverence among the locals. It was Valdez who led the Christmas Posada. “It began on the 16th of December,” he recalled. “We would do the novena of Santa Niño followed by nine days of prayer thanking the infant Jesus,” he said.
The Posada is a reenactment of the journey Joseph and Mary took prior to the birth of Jesus. With Joseph leading and Mary on the donkey, they approach each door only to be turned away. Ultimately, as the story is told, they finally settle in the manger where the child is born. The Posada is reenacted throughout South America and Mexico and in scores of Latino communities in the United States.
“We would go to the little towns each of the nine nights and walk with Joseph and Mary and up in the little chapel and have a dinner afterward.” It was, he said, “a beautiful expression of faith.”
While time has taken its toll on tradition---the Posada in the Valley has slowly gone away---its absence has done nothing to erase the memory of years passed. “There just aren’t enough people to do it,” said Vialpando. In its heyday, Vialpando recalled a Posada when “I remember feeding seventy-six people,” she said. While that seems like a lot, “you graciously accept people into your home.” Vialpando said she made enough red and green chile to handle the crowd. There were also chicos and biscochitos.
The vanishing Posada is simply a casualty of time. The aging and passing on of populations in San Luis along with the neighboring towns have forced change. But the memories remain. “It was so beautiful,” said Vialpando. “We had people from all over the county just coming together as a community.” Even the frigid Christmas visits to the Stations of the Cross were memorable. “Back then, you didn’t even notice the cold.”