In Santa Fe, the meaning of Christmas is unlike anywhere else in the world. I learned this the first time I visited the city, years ago, after ordering enchiladas at the Shed restaurant.

"And your chile sauce? Red, green, or Christmas?" asked my server.

For a taste of both red and green — the chile sauces served with almost everything in New Mexico — I quickly caught on: Order Christmas. Ever since, Christmas has been on my mind when I visit, no matter the season.

Last December was the first time I actually visited Santa Fe during the holiday season, when my cheery dining choice seemed especially fitting. On this trip, a spontaneous three-day girlfriend getaway, Rosemary and I rented a car in Albuquerque and headed to Santa Fe along the Turquoise Trail. Not a trail at all, the highway stretches through the wide-open and rugged New Mexican countryside, curving through old mining towns like Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) with its eclectic art scene.

In Santa Fe, we parked the car near the city's historic Plaza and emerged into clear, crisp New Mexican air. A sunset streaked the dark blue sky with orange. On many other visits, the scent of roasting chiles or lavender and Russian sage greeted me; this time, I breathed in the unmistakable aroma of pinyon smoke.

At the Dragon Room bar, part of the city's legendary Pink Adobe restaurant, the same essence warmed us from a corner kiva fireplace that evening. As we sipped our "Pink Dragon" margaritas, we perused the city's tourism pamphlet, then reflected on the room's funky decor (a tree grew through the roof). When Rosemary pointed to another tree, a decorated Christmas tree hanging upside down from the ceiling, she laughed, "Do you think Santa Fe's motto 'A City Different,' was invented here?"

For us, used to wintry Midwest Christmas traditions, the holiday in Santa Fe certainly couldn't have been more different. Luminarias, those glowing little bags called farolitos in the Southwest, lined adobe buildings with their golden light. Wreaths of red chile peppers adorned doorways. Day of the Dead Nativity sets and glass chile ornaments filled store windows. Tamales and sopai­pillas graced restaurant menus, mariachi music played, and the pueblo-inspired kiva fireplaces looked nothing like our hearths at home. Perhaps best of all, being outside to window-shop or just enjoy the decorations didn't require dressing in a snowmobile suit.

Still, we discovered that nights in December require a jacket. The city occasionally even gets a dusting of snow, but that wasn't the case when we headed to the city's annual Glow – Cosmic Nights holiday event in the Botanical Garden on Museum Hill.

We went early so we could stop in the Museum of International Folk Art. This is my favorite of the four museums located on the Hill, and despite my multiple visits I still have not seen everything there. With 130,000 objects from more than 100 countries, it's the largest collection of international folk art in the world.

Before darkness descended, we drove across the road and parked closer to the Botanical Garden. After another spectacular sunset, we strolled the meandering paths with others, transfixed by the thousands of twinkle lights, intricate colored light installations and sculptures dramatically showcased throughout the grounds. Mini light shows (one looked like water flowing in a stream) and small fire pits for warming cold hands were strategically placed.

As we stood near one that night, we heard a mariachi band. Every evening features a different musical group, but that particular night as we listened to a rousing "Feliz Navidad" coming from a tented stage, it seemed the perfect accompaniment.

Santa Fe Farmers Market

Our hotel, La Fonda on the P, was brimming with more holiday spirit — and a country western band. After a margarita nightcap, we were too tired to join the dancing crowd, choosing to explore the history-rich old hotel's labyrinth of hallways on our way to our room instead. Besides distinctive Southwestern art, we passed a life-size crèche and admired a supersized gingerbread replica of the hotel.

The next morning, we headed to the Santa Fe Farmers Market, where I was determined to buy a chile wreath to bring home. Near Santa Fe's renovated rail yard, the market was brilliant beneath a blue sky. Tables were draped with colorful serapes, and heaped with more sizes and more variations of chile ristras and wreaths than my decision-challenged brain could comprehend. By the time I finally selected my wreath, I had already purchased a tabletop reindeer constructed of sage and several smaller sage sticks wrapped in brightly colored yarn and decorated with dried flowers.

It was then that I realized I needed a margarita. And another suitcase.

Instead, we opted for hot chocolate at the Kakawa Chocolate House, a bustling little shop where the chalkboard listed exotic-sounding "elixirs" of the day and a display case was loaded with intrigue: pinyon caramels, horchata truffles, chile d'arbols, tiny roasted chiles dipped in caramel and then chocolate. A powerful Mesoamerican chocolate elixir (not for the faint of heart) later, we were ready for the Palace of the Governors. This is where Native American artisans still sell jewelry beneath the Palace's long portal, just as they have for hundreds of years.

Canyon Road

Midafternoon, more shopping opportunities awaited on Canyon Road, considered Santa Fe's most famous street, lined with nearly 100 art galleries. While it was quiet at that time, locals we met at the Glow event told us that on Christmas Eve the place is packed with people for its yearly Farolito Walk. A longtime Santa Fe holiday tradition, this is when thousands of the candlelit lanterns line the road. People sing Christmas carols and galleries serve delicious spiced biscochitos, New Mexico's official state cookie, cider and hot chocolate along the walk.

A late afternoon flight the next day gave us time for breakfast in Santa Fe at Café Pasqual's. The popular local place, renowned for its food since it opened in 1979, is named for the folk saint of New Mexican kitchens and cooks, San Pasqual.

Outside, garlands of greenery adorned the adobe building. Inside, red poinsettias added to the already festive ambience. Rosemary ordered poached eggs on avocado toast, and I chose huevos rancheros, waiting for the customary question before I merrily requested, "Christmas."

Then I sat back, sipped my hot coffee and let the real meaning of Christmas sink in.

Donna Tabbert Long (@tabbertlong) of Minneapolis writes about food and travel.