This past weekend was Elephant Butte’s big holiday celebration. Festivities occur both on land and on the water, but the highlight of the weekend is the Floating Lights Boat Parade. Boat owners go all out to decorate their boats, which are judged by a panel of judges and also, for the People’s Choice award, by the general public on the beach.
Carguy decided he wanted to enter his big sailboat, Sun Kissed, in the parade, and he bought lots and lots of lights to turn it into a 40-foot-high Christmas tree, with presents underneath. He set up a generator to power the lights and also a sound system, and I created a CD of cheerful, upbeat Christmas music to go along.
Last week was the last week of the term at the community college, and so I spent Friday in a marathon portfolio-grading session. If it had ended earlier, we would have gone to the lake Friday evening, but as it was, we went to the lake Saturday. The prediction had been for temperatures in the low 60s and winds between 15 and 20 – in other words, great sailing weather. But the weather that actually happened was a bit colder, and one heck of a lot windier. The automated weather station at the state park headquarters recorded winds up to 36 mph, and most people guessed the winds were actually heavier; the weather station’s measurements aren’t all that accurate. During the previous couple of days, a horde of volunteers had set up thousands of luminarias in the state park for Saturday night’s events; by the time we got to the lake, the wind had literally flattened them.
(For those of you who come from somewhere else, luminarias are a holiday tradition in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest. The original tradition was small bonfires lit along a path to light the way for the Christ Child; that has evolved into the contemporary luminaria. To make one, take a brown paper bag (lunch bag size or slightly larger), and fold the top edge over twice to give it stiffness. Then put about two inches of sand in the bottom of the bag, and set a votive candle into the sand. Repeat as many times as necessary to produce enough luminarias to line whatever walkways, driveways, and other landscape features as you want to highlight. As darkness falls, light the candles, and hope it’s not too windy, or the candles will blow out.)
When we arrived at the boat Saturday, we found Carguy, his girlfriend, her kids, another friend and her kid, taking shelter from the wind on board the other boat that he has next to Sun Kissed – a powerboat that he’s thinking about selling because he seldom takes it out, as it takes $1000 to fill the gas tank. But at least on Saturday, it provided nice shelter.
Pat and Tadpole then went to help Carguy set up the boat. Carguy had the vision; Tadpole had the engineering skills to make that into a reality. An illuminated Christmas wreath was mounted on a triangular wooden frame; the top of the frame was attached to the jib halyard, and fourteen strands of Christmas lights were attached to the bottom of the frame. Each of those strands was connected to a second strand to make enough length to reach from the top of the mast to the rails of the boat. With nine people standing on the pier – one each at the bow and stern of the boat with ropes to hold the corners of the frame straight, and one for each two light strings to keep them from getting tangled up – Tadpole hoisted the tree. With the fierce winds, this was challenging. Once the top of the tree was at the masthead, Tadpole then had to use zip-ties to secure everything, and then he had to work out how to get everything plugged in without overloading any one circuit. Just as the sun was going down, he got the whole tree lit up.
Next was getting rectangular pieces of cardboard that Carguy and his girlfriend and her kids had already covered with gift wrap and attached lights to, and mounting those along the rail of the boat to represent the presents under the tree. That went fairly easily, as Tadpole had already planned where to plug those in.
There was a glitch with the sound system – apparently there was a short in one of the speakers. The Christmas songs had to be played through the boat’s own stereo speakers in the cockpit, which were less powerful.
The wind had let up a little, but not much, by the time scheduled for the light parade, and so the officials holding the parade decided it wouldn’t be safe to hold the parade. Instead, the judges and the general public came out into the marina to look at the boats. This was both a benefit and a detriment to Sun Kissed; the weaker sound system didn’t matter so much, but at close range, it was hard to appreciate the magnitude of the project. The advantage went to large houseboats that could put a whole lot of lights at eye level (and one that had hula dancers with skirts and bras made out of electric lights, who had to keep dancing the whole time to keep from freezing, as the wind was still about 20 mph, and the temperature dropped into the 40s – although the heat generated by all of those little light bulbs might have helped). From a distance, however, Sun Kissed was the one boat that really stood out.
On the beach, the luminarias were a blowout, but the other festivities went on as planned. Normally, the luminarias line paths that lead from bonfire to bonfire; the paths were still there, and so were the bonfires. At each bonfire, a local organization or business served up food for all of those who came by – yes, free food for all who attend the festival. The emphasis is on warm food, such as green chile stew, beans, and posole – lots of posole. (That’s a stew based on whole-grain hominy, traditionally augmented with bits of shredded pork and red chile seasoning, but there are variations, such as vegetarian versions and substituting green chile for red. It’s wonderful on a cold night.) Beverages are also served – hot spiced cider, hot chocolate, and the like. As we wandered from bonfire to bonfire, we met and chatted with many of the local people with whom we have become friends over the years. And there were fireworks, too – not a big display, but just enough to add to the festivity of the occasion.
As the festivities and bonfires on the beach died down, it was time to go to the awards ceremony. Boats aren’t the only things that get awards for lights during the festival; on land, awards are given for homes, businesses, and RVs. But the really big honors go to those who float upon the water, rather than those who sit upon the land near the water.
Sun Kissed took fourth place. All of the other prizes went to houseboats that could put a lot of eye candy where judges wandering through the marina could see it. Interestingly, the boat with the hula dancers got only second place from the judges, although it did win the People’s Choice award. Even the fourth place prize was worthwhile: a nice marble plaque, a $20 gift certificate to a restaurant where it’s difficult for the three of us to run up even a $10 tab, and a $50 gift certificate to a local marine supply store. Carguy kept the plaque, but he turned over the gift certificates to Tadpole as a reward for his services in making the effort a success.
Next year, Carguy plans to win this thing. This year was his first year, and he didn’t realize going in how tough the competition would be. Now he knows, and he’s going to be ready. He’s already making plans, but I can’t reveal the secret details here.
Of course, this whole thing is a lot more about having fun than about competition, much more about holiday friendship than about getting the better of somebody. In the marina, on the beach, and at the awards ceremony, the spirit was friendship, camaraderie, sharing jokes together, and coming together to resist the cold wind.
As I type this, my computer is playing a medley of Christmas tunes. But this spirit isn’t tied just to one particular religion. Even in Christian religions, Christmas is secondary to Easter in the core meaning of the religion, and in the Jewish faith, Hanukkah would be only a minor holiday if it didn’t have to compete with Christmas; Passover is much the more meaningful holiday.
No, the spirit of this time of year goes beyond religion – it’s about humans coming together to survive the winter, and to enjoy each other’s company while we’re at it.