For the last 15 years, a 1948 red GMC truck has permanently decorated Ray Herrera’s driveway.
“It’s a one-owner,” Herrera boasts, explaining that he inherited the vehicle from his father after he passed.
Next to it, there’s a hand-built shrine to St. Francis that Herrera built himself. A vintage, paper-stuffed Santa Claus is propped against the pickup’s driver’s seat.
“Everyone thinks he’s gross because he’s falling apart," Herrera, an antique furniture restorer by day, says of the effigy. “I bought it when my kids were small, so he’s part of my family.”
Herrera considered burning him in a luminaria ceremony, but later decided against it. “I’m too sentimental,” he says, “and if you look at it, it’s like he’s looking back saying: ‘What’s your point?’”
Under the likeness’ watchful eye, Herrera has been hard at work putting together an impressive holiday display that local author of Christmas in Santa Fe Susan Topp Weber describes as his “Christmas gift to Santa Fe.”
Without a minute to spare, Herrera continues the tour through his house, leading the way to his backyard, where the holiday magic is already taking shape.
“This is my abode,” he says of the space, passing sand bags and cases filled with candles and paper bags.
“She’s one of the main decorations that I put up,” Herrera says, signaling at an Our Lady of Guadalupe depiction he’s just hung up on a pole.
“I’m 67 and still climbing ladders,” he says proudly.
She’s made out of tin he salvaged from the old roof of the Santuario de Guadalupe, and shimmers in the afternoon sun.
“I’m into the religious part of it,” Herrera says of his display’s motif. “People come here for the religious aspect of Christmas and then they go raise hell on Canyon Road, or vice versa.”
New to the roster this year is a spotlight that he hopes will shine a star pattern on his entire display, including his “Charlie Brown tree,” a blue spruce he planted as a seedling after his father’s death.
“I still have to experiment with it,” he says of the new acquisition.
For Herrera, the love affair with Christmas has been a lifelong one.
“Come sit down,” he instructs, pointing to the tailgate of his Toyota, which is parked by the backdoor, “I’m very informal.”
“The only thing I remember about Christmas is just beautiful snow. I mean, we used to shovel snow from September until March,” Herrera reminisces. “That was how we made our spending money.” He also remembers an old Santa Fe tradition of knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking for “mis Christmas”—à la Halloween.
“There were a lot of Anglos in the neighborhood, and they were the ones that had the goodies, you know? So we’d go Christmas morning and recite—how does it go? Angelitos venimos del cielo a pedir, oremos…something like that, and they’d give you goodies—candy, oranges.”
By his teen years, he was in charge of decorating his family home, and after moving to Hillside following his wedding, he kept up the tradition in a display that involves not just his impressive outdoor nacimiento (which for years graced the Cross of the Martyrs), but also some 2,000 farolitos he lines up from Marcy Street “all the way to Rodriguez and down to Palace.”
“I started that in 1980, more or less,” he says. “I personally would go door-to-door and [give neighbors] candles and bags and expect to have it done,” he says. “Then I’d turn around and nothing was done, so I’d have to come back and do it myself.”
Herrera says that back then, he did it all in one weekend. “That was when I was able to jump up and down and do all these things,” he points out. Now? “¡Ay Dios! It takes me like three weekends.”
He’s aided along the way by friends and family members he’s designated as “captains.”
His wife, he says, also plays a pivotal role in the operation, installing timers and keeping a close eye on the electrical bill. “I’m OK not knowing” the exact amount he’ll end up paying, he jokes.
It’ll be paid though a neighborhood fund, and Herrera says he has no plans on asking for government assistance.
“The city doesn’t have anything to do with it at all, and I don’t want them to. I want to be in control,” he affirms. “I’m not selfish, I know politics and I know how things operate, and this is my project.”
Dubbed by his mother as an “entrometido” (meddler) as a kid, Herrera has a longstanding history in the local cultural scene. “I was involved with Spanish Market for 30-some years, and I’m a founding member of the Museo Cultural,” he says.
He hopes his efforts will spread and other neighborhoods will start creating their own displays as a way of conserving local customs.
“Maintaining any tradition—whether it’s Christmas or anything that’s traditional—is important because we’re losing our culture, we’re losing our language, we’re losing everything little by little,” he says.
“It’s important to maintain it for our kids; I’ve got one grandkid, a 5-year-old, and he is captain now. He helps me, and says: ‘Pa, I’m your captain,’ Herrera says, taking a pause and smiling.
“He’s an entrometido, just like his abuelito, pero he likes to do things, and that’s what counts.”