It’s December, 1935. The pilot of a Trans World Airlines flight has arranged that the plane pass over the American Southwest only once the sun has completely set.
The passengers look out the window and wait and, soon enough, it appears: a beacon of light. There is one town, nestled amongst the hills in northern New Mexico, whose Christmas light display dwarfs that of any location in the United States—perhaps the world. But just as soon as it appears, it’s gone from view; the thrill is short-lived, but worth it, as far as the crew is concerned.
The town was Madrid, NM, and its Christmas light displays were known all over the world during the first few decades of the 20th century. Even Walt Disney is fabled to have been enamored of Madrid, thrilled by its devotion to luminescent displays around the holidays; he spent time in northern New Mexico while filming The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca in Cerrillos in the ’50s. Some say he even considered purchasing Madrid to create “Christmas Town”—think Disneyland, only with a seasonal bent.
It also is widely believed Disney took great inspiration from Madrid’s displays when he envisioned Disneyland. Specifically, Madrid’s ballpark each year would be transformed into “Toy Land,” a field full of animated wooden cutouts and 3-D displays of everything from Jack and the Beanstalk to Humpty Dumpty. The story goes that Disney loved the idea of larger-than-life representations of fairy tale creatures, and used it ad nauseam to create Disneyland, which opened in 1955.
Madrid, as a booming coal town, had its own electric power plant to run the mining equipment. It contained the first lighted ballpark West of the Mississippi (and its team, the Madrid Miners, was a feeder team for the Brooklyn Dodgers), and was one of the first towns in the country with lighted electric streetlights.
This ample flow of electricity translated to ample opportunity to decorate once the holidays came around. So the tradition was started: Each year, Madrid went all-out for the holidays, and gained the attention of locals, tourists and celebrities alike. Records indicate that the annual decorations and power costs ran up to $3,000 (the expense was paid by the miners’ Employees Club dues, which were 75 cents per month). More than 100,000 electric bulbs were used to light Madrid’s public streets each year—and an identical number of tourists came through Madrid each year to witness the spectacle.
In the ’30s, the Christmas decorations were fabricated and assembled by “volunteer” hours—mandatory volunteer labor from the miners. The celebrations were commandeered by Superintendent Oscar Huber—described in most historical accounts as a sort of benevolent dictator—who hoped the annual Christmas displays would help unify the town as a community.
Madrid survived its decades as a ghost town and experienced a renaissance in the ’70s and ’80s. These days Madrid maintains a steady population (albeit closer to 200 than 3,000), and the town’s Christmas celebrations remain an important part of the year.
But in the 21st century, Madrid’s Christmas celebration is considerably more relaxed. For 27 years running, the Madrid Merchants Association has organized the Christmas Open House. The season starts with the annual Christmas parade on the first Saturday in December. At 4 pm, the procession begins and, from the southernmost edge of town, a contingent of costumed adults, children, pets, livestock and vehicles starts its stately march north, toward the Old Boarding House Mercantile. The parade is followed by the first Christmas Open House of the year.
Anyone aching for peace on earth and goodwill toward men would be well-advised to head to Madrid on a Saturday evening in December. Businesses and galleries stay open later and many have refreshments, welcoming bundled-up locals and tourists alike in from the (snowy?) streets. Saturdays usually feature carriage rides up and down Madrid’s main drag, and Santa always makes an appearance or two. Most shops feature special Christmas merchandise to help line the stockings of last-minute holiday shoppers.
Some businesses have traditions around Christmas Open House season, and others make it up as they go along. Josh Novak, chef and owner at The Hollar restaurant, which celebrated its one-year anniversary on Nov. 4, is already busy dreaming up ideas for special holiday dishes and features at his elegant Southern restaurant (he supposes he’ll build a fire on the patio on Saturday nights, and the suggestion of mulled wine draws “mmmms” from his entire staff).
Lisa Conley, who has owned Conley Studio Pottery for nearly a decade, has always participated in the annual Christmas light competition (and has at least one feather in her cap from a previous year’s win); this year, though there may not be an official competition. But old habits die hard, and many galleries will still go all-out.
The possible absence of the Christmas light competition this year was a decision the Madrid merchants made together, according to Diana Johnson of the Johnsons of Madrid Galleries. It had started to become like Huber’s “mandatory volunteer” decorating plan, and the thought this year is that merchants and residents alike may go even wilder on their decorations if they don’t feel the pressure. But there’s no telling exactly what will happen this holiday season; one of the best aspects of Madrid is just how unpredictable the revelry can be—maybe at the last minute the Madrid Merchants Association will decide to award prizes after all. The only way to know for sure is to be there.
4 pm Saturday, Dec. 5
Starting at Chumani Gallery (2839 Hwy. 14) and ending at the Old Boarding House Mercantile (2885 Hwy. 14)
2849 Hwy. 14, Madrid
Conley Studio Pottery
2870 Hwy. 14, Madrid
Johnsons of Madrid Galleries
2843 Hwy. 14, Madrid