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A New Mexican Christmas Eve by J. T.

It is Christmas Eve in Albuquerque. Blazing fagots of mesquite-roots placed on the surrounding adobe walls illuminate the old church on the plaza. There is a grand baile at the fonda, to which we and our "family are most respectfully invited." The sounds of music already invite us to the ball-room. We enter. The floor is full; a hundred couples are gliding through the graceful "Spanish dance," or "slow waltz," as it is termed here. Not a few blue-and-gold United States uniforms are to be seen in the throng. A full-uniformed major-general of volunteers adds the éclat of his epaulettes to the occasion. The ranchos have poured in their señoras and señoritas, and three rows of the dark-eyed creatures sit ranged around the room.

The Mexican women look their best in a ball-room. Their black eyes, black hair and white teeth glisten in the light; they are dressed in the gayest of gay colors; ponderous ornaments of gold, strongly relieved by their dusk complexions, shed around them a rich barbaric lustre. Not that they eschew adventitious means to blanch their sun-shadowed tints. For days some of the señoras and señoritas have worn a mask of a white clayey mixture to give them an ephemeral whiteness for this occasion. Those who could procure nothing else have worn a pasty vizard kneaded of common clay, to effect in some degree a like result by protecting their faces from the sun and wind. Should you visit New Mexico, and as you ride along slowly in the heat of midday meet a señorita who gazes at you with a pair of jet black eyes through a hideous, ghastly mask of mud or mortar, do not be frightened from your accustomed propriety. The señorita is preparing her toilette de bal.

The New Mexican women cannot be considered pretty, generally speaking. In artistic symmetry of feature, in purity of complexion, they are not to be compared with our countrywomen. These can bear the searching light of day, when delicacy of detail can be distinguished and appreciated. Those look their best in the artificial light of the ball-room. There the blue-black hair, the brilliant black eyes, the well-traced eyebrows, the magnificently white and regular teeth, the richly-developed forms, produce a general effect before which our blond and delicate beauties seem pale and fades. But the Mexican's coarser skin—her teint basané—is too plainly visible in the light of the sun: you should see her only by the lamps. It is doubtless rather from an instinct of coquetry than from any other feeling that in the day-time the Mexican women shroud their dusky traits in the folds of their rebosas, leaving only one pilot eye to look upon the outer world.

No introductions are necessary at the public bailes. Saunter around the room, inspect the show of expectant partners, and when you see one who suits your fancy ask her to dance, without more ado. If she be not engaged she will at once accept your proffered arm. She will not say anything. Ten to one she will not breathe a syllable during your evolutions. Conversation is not the forte of the señoritas. But she will smile and smile, and you will have no reason to complain of her waltzing. The Mexican caballero, when he seeks a partner, will not put himself out so far as to have any words about it. He merely beckons the chosen one, as the sultan might throw the handkerchief, and she comes to him at once.

Each dance concluded, you lead your partner to a sort of bar where refreshments are furnished, and ask her whether she will take vino or dulces—wine or candies? She will take dulces—"Gracias, señor!" This is de rigueur. You pay for them of course, and conduct her to her seat. She pours the dulces into the awaiting pocket-handkerchiefs of the old people, her comadres, and of her younger brothers and sisters.

In a little room adjoining the ball-room, with door invitingly open, is the shrine of monte. The revelry of the ball-room is unheeded by the preoccupied votaries of the changeful deity as they sit around the green table watching the dealer as he turns the cards, and nervously fingering their little piles of red or white "chips." We have no business and no pleasure here. Let us merely look in and pass on.

Waltzes, "round" and "slow," are the pièces de résistance of a Mexican baile: quadrilles are not relished by the dusky danseuses. There are some New Mexican dances which do not lack prettiness. Of these, the Cuna is the most popular. It commences with a see-saw movement suggestive of its name—cuna- or cradle-dance. For the rest, the waltz enters much into its composition.

The orchestra generally consists of one or more violins and a guitar or two. The New Mexican guitar is strung conversely: the base-string is where we put the treble, and vice versâ. The strings are generally struck with the thumb-nail or with a piece of horn or wood like the ancient plectrum. This produces a harsh metallic sound, without any rotundity. Few New Mexican fiddlers or guitar-players are capable of playing in any time except dancing time, and the character of the baile, funeral and sacred music is the same. The only distinction is the addition of a continuous tremolo to the latter two, which produces the same unpleasant effect on the nerves as a comic song chanted by the shaky, cracked, piping and quavering voice of senility. As the fiddles invariably play their parts in funerals as well as on festive processions, it requires some familiarity with the customs of the country to distinguish one from the other. The music to-night is much better than the ordinary baile music. A native harpist adds the music of his many strings; and not bad music either, though he does not know a quaver from a semibreve, and his harp is of his own manufacture. The sameness, however, caused by playing always and everything in the same key is perceptible. But dancing critics are not disposed to be very severe.

The enjoyment of the evening is at high pressure. The dancers are swinging, surging, spinning through the Spanish dance. Everybody who can find a partner and a place on the floor—there are many who cannot find the latter—is dancing. It is a gay, a brilliant scene. All is going as merrily as a whole chime of marriage-bells when a deep and solemn peal from the church close by breaks in over the music, the laughter and the dancing. It is midnight! It is the Noche Buena, and the bell summons the faithful to the midnight mass. The effect is electric. The last twirl of the waltz is suspended, half executed. The dancers stop as suddenly as if they were puppets moved and stilled by the cunning of some wire-pulling hand. A general rush is made for the church: in a moment the ball-room is empty. The church is filled as instantaneously, and the wildly gay dancers of a moment ago are now kneeling, hushed and down-bent, in devotional attitudes.

The scene is impressive: the bright ball-toilettes contrasted in a "dim religious light," the sudden change of place and mood, from gay to grave, from ball-room to sanctuary, strikes a stranger's eye with thrilling effect. At the conclusion of the service the dancers return to the ball-room, to change from grave to gay, and dance ad libitum till daylight.