Santa Claus must have left Taos off of his route map: Unlike in the rest of the country, St. Nick only plays a bit part around here. And that's the way the locals like it. After all, this place is hardly lacking in tradition. For one, there's the purely American custom of ripping it up in chalk-dry Southwestern powder while the high-alpine sun shines from a cloudless blue sky and burns your face to crimson, if you're not careful. Second, come nightfall, Native American, Hispanic and Anglo locals spark up the darkness by skiing down Snakedance holding avalanche flares in their bare hands. After this daring, Taos-style torchlight parade, revelers descend into the cozy belly of a Swiss chalet for a sensually untraditional Christmas dinner. Gone are the roast ham and fruitcake, replaced by foie gras, fresh oysters and buffalo tenderloin shared among fellow guests from Texas, Germany and Australia who return year after year to celebrate another classic New Mexican holiday.
Welcome to the church of Taos, where the four sacraments are sun, steeps, snow and skiing (there's still no snowboarding allowed). At 9,207 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, 15 miles from the town of the same name, Taos is a mountain established for skiers, by skiers. From the gnarly terrain on Kachina Peak to the adobe inns that line the town's main drag, it's the real deal-just as founder Ernie Blake intended when he opened the hill to skiers a half-century ago. It's still the only mountain on the planet where European, Native American and Wild West influences mingle seamlessly. And Christmastime is when this village lets it all hang out.
Witness Jean Mayer, a hospitable Frenchman who settled in Taos Ski Valley in the late '50s. Mayer works double-time as the resort's technical director of skiing and owner of the slopeside Hotel St. Bernard. On an average Saturday, you'll spot him manning the barbecue on the hotel's deck as skiers drink beer, eat burgers and bask in the New Mexico sun. But on Christmas Eve, Mayer pulls out the stops. After his guests have gorged themselves on vichyssoise, Alaskan crab legs, wild chanterelle mushrooms and sorbet, Mayer and his staff process into the dining room carrying a lighted yule log, pass out sheet music and gather around the tangy piñon-scented fireplace to sing carols.
"There's a mystical feeling about Christmas in Taos," says Mayer. "We make a commitment to sharing how we feel about skiing-our passion for the mountain, the snow and our sport."
A true ski mountain-don't call it a resort-Taos' terrain is rated 51 percent black-diamond, a number that includes some of the finest hike-to terrain in the country: the chutes off 12,481-foot Kachina Peak. And while Chris Stagg, Taos' vice president of marketing, doesn't dispute the hardcore reputation ("There's not one mountain in Colorado that comes close to the challenge Taos has," he boasts), he insists that it's tempered by the ski school, designed to give skiers the confidence they need to conquer the terrain.
"Ernie Blake figured out that the longer someone hung around Taos as a beginner, the worse time they had," says Stagg. "So he developed a system that didn't let them stay beginners for very long." The strategy revolves around a weeklong package that teaches practical skills in the context of a fun vacation. The formula works: The ski school at Taos is one of the best in the U.S., churning out proficient skiers who keep coming back for more.
Doug Stewart, a stock analyst from Washington, D.C., has spent Christmas at Taos with his wife and 15-year-old twin daughters for the past eight years. They book a condo at the St. Bernard so they can enjoy Mayer's yuletide festivities.
"Ambience is Taos' strongest appeal," says Stewart. "Plus the terrain is terrific. There's tremendous cruising, bump runs that'll throw more at you than you want them to and the most accessible off-piste skiing I've found."
But to peer into the soul of a Taos Christmas, you have to venture into town, driving down the twisty road with the icy Rio Hondo on your left and Julia Roberts' and Donald Rumsfeld's neighboring ranches on your right. Cruise through the adobe village of Arroyo Seco and into Taos village, where farolitos-votive candles in paper bags-replace twinkling lights and plastic Santas. If you're longing for holiday tradition, head to nearby Taos Pueblo, where Native Americans have been performing their Deer Dance on Christmas Day for almost a millennium. As the earthshaking rumble of the dancers and drummers comes to a halt, don't be surprised if you find yourself wondering, "Santa?