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Las CabaƱuelas

by Estevan Arellano

For the early settlers who braved the “Jornada del Muerto,” or Journey of the Dead from Mexico to northern New Mexico in 1598, it was not simply a matter of finding good soil and water to plant in order to survive, it also meant learning to understand nature and their new environs and applying the knowledge they brought with them to this new homeland. Reading the sun, the moon, and the stars was an old tradition, one that could be easily applied to new worlds and geographies.  The arid landscape of New Mexico was similar to that of Mexico, Spain and the Middle East. The settlers brought with them knowledge of place, or querencia, that ran through their blood. This knowledge included the sacred triumvirate of water, weather, and  land passed down from father to son and mother to daughter in an oral tradition that was accumulated from those with whom the settlers came into contact, an accretion of knowledge that was life sustaining.

“January has the secret of all twelve months,” or so says an old proverb in Spanish. Or it could be that the month is August, depending on what part of the Spanish-speaking world one lives in: In New Mexico the dicho is referring to the reading of the cabañuelas, which people still use to predict the weather for the coming year. The cabañuelas is the name given to the first twelve days of January.  Each of these days in turn will indicate the kind of weather that will be produced in the following months. Though no one knows for sure where the term originated, it may have come from Zamuc, or “Fiesta de las Suertes,” the feast of luck, from the Babylonian calendar, which in Hebrew translates to the Fiesta of the Tabernacle. The word cabañuelas comes from the word cabaña, a shelter, small cabin or house, or tabernacle and the twelve days "house" the prognostication. La fiesta de las cabañuelas is of Jewish origin but is of mixed cultural heritage. Arab and Jewish cultures were a part of the Spanish heritage brought to the Americas and transplanted in New Mexico.

People have always relied on nature, the stars, sun and other natural phenomena to better understand when to plant or how much seed to commit to the soil. Many of the refranes (sayings) about the weather and planting that came from Muslim Spain where embedded in the Calendario de Córdoba, Calendario anónoimo andalusí, and the Tratado de los meses of Ibn Asimor as well as the calendars from Yemen and other non-Christian areas. Much of this knowledge has now become Christianized, that is, most of this knowledge has been adapted to the Christian calendar. For example today, garlic is usually planted by San Martín, or the 11th of November, fabas usually by San Lucas, 18th of October, and the winter vegetables should be transplanted by Santiago, July 25th.

Cabañuelas is also known as the feast of the Tabernacles (cabañuelas), a festival of Jews in Spain celebrated in August in memory of the 40 days Jews spent in the desert looking for the Promised Land. From this experience came a keen knowledge of the weather and of the harvest. Cabañuelas seems to be exclusive to the Spanish speaking world, from Spain to the Canary Islands, to Cuba, to Mexico and finally to northern New Mexico. Although the weather varies from country to country, people have adopted a way of prognosticating the weather using the cabañuelas.

In parts of Spain, including the Canary Islands, the cabañuelas are still observed in the month of August, with the first of the month known as, “llave del año,” or the “key to the year.” Agriculturalists think that the first of January, or August, depending when the cabañuelas are read, give a glimpse as to what the weather will be for the upcoming year. But it was not only the Jews, the Muslims or Christians who kept track of the cabañuelas. January, which holds the secret of all twelve months, comes from the pagan god, Janus, which signifies “door,” from the separation of space and time (eones, from the Greek aion). It usually has two faces, the past and the future, sometimes a face of a man and that of a woman, or the duality of nature.  The Mayans call the Cabañuelas, Chac-chac, and they are observed in the same manner. The months from January to December are known as Xoc-kin, and from December to January Ualak-xoe. The Cabañuelas are used to predict what the weather will be, and in that way the farmers will know when to plant and harvest, when it will rain or be dry, when it will be hot or cold. It is believed that in pre-Hispanic Mexico the Aztecs adopted this knowledge from the Mayas, which was later adopted into the Christian calendar. This was based on an oral tradition.  For example, if the Cabañuelas show the 9th of January to be cloudy, temperate, and showers, someone might say, “we are in the cabañuela of September.” The following day might be windy, kind of cold, someone will then explain, “we are in the cabañuela of October."

Farmers often consider the moon, especially the quarter moon, when looking for answers about the whether, rain or shine. If the quarter moon is on its belly it means it will be dry but if the moon is tipped towards the bottom it will rain. In the winter if there is a flock of crows hovering close to the ground, and crowing, it means a snow storm is on its way. In the past, people were more observant of nature because understanding nature could mean the difference between a good harvest and a lean winter.

In the past and still in some villages there is an individual who can “read” the cabañuelas, or predict the weather for the whole year. In general the cabañuelistas don’t want rain at the beginning of the year for it’s a bad omen.  They say that the cabañuela “se vacia,” o “se revienta,” that is, that the cabañuela “empties,” or “bursts.”

Farmers are very observant of their surroundings; they take into account the color of the sky when the sun is setting in the west. If the color of the sky is light pink, a pale yellow or grayish, it usually signifies a change in the weather. But if the sky is an intense blue, it signifies heavy winds in the upper atmosphere.

Outdoors, if the goats are eating and moving rapidly it means an impending storm and if the cows lie down to eat, it means a rain storm is on its way. If the cat is washing its face or if the frogs croak louder than usual, this usually means rain or if the cats are running and jumping all of a sudden expect wind. In the summer if the roses smell more intense, it means there is a low pressure system but if the smoke from the fireplace spirals straight up in winter it signifies atmospheric stability. Changes in the weather may be predicted by paying attention to the barn animals or your own body; if the rooster sings at midday, or the barn animals are very tranquil changes in the weather are coming; if people have pain in their joints expect changes in the weather.

To “read” the Cabañuelas copious notes are referred to either written or mental.  Much of this history has been passed on orally and from generation to generation. The first day of the month represents January the “key to the year,” the second day is January, and so on until you get to the 13th day which represents December; then one starts counting backyards, that is, the 14th day represents December, the 15th day November, until you get to the 25th day, which represents January; the 26th day represents January and February, 12 hours for each day; the 27th day represents March and April, and so on, until the 31st day representing November and December. If the first day is not observed as “llave del año,” then the 31st is broken into two hours to represent each month.

A sample cabañuelas follows:

"Llave del año,” key to the year, Jan. 1st. Since the wind blew all day from the north, this cabañuela is considered very negative; therefore a bad year.

January: Second of January, windy, moisture in the morning, represents a very dry cabañuela.

February: 3rd of January, swift wind, towards noon wind shifted north, normal month. There’s a saying that reads, “febrero loco, marzo poco,” February is very unpredictable and March is sort of the same.”

March: 4th of January, bad weather, north wind, very dry.

April: 5th of January, same as before, windy and dry, not much of a chance for rain.

May: 6th of January, uncertain cabañuela, bad sign.

June: 7th of January, easterly wind most of the day, good omen.

July: 8th of January, another bad day, windy and dry, not much hope of rain.

August: 9th of January, another bad month, same as the previous day.

September: 10th of January, regular, morning not much wind.

October: 11th of January, good but no rain.

November: 12th of January, dry, bad cabañuela, sunny all day.

December: 13th of January, same as the day before.

If the first of January is not observed as llave del año, then the cabañuelas will begin on the first day of the year. In order to understand the cabañuelas, or to “read” them properly the person has to know whence the wind blows. During cabañuelas if the rastrojo (stubble on the fields) is correoso (flexible or leathery) in the morning, it means clouds; if the grapes are moist, it signifies cold.

The cabañuelas are a system of predicting the weather for the forth coming year based on observation and is usually very accurate. They can also be said to be a ritual of creation and regeneration for they are also based on the vast amount of knowledge that the agriculturalist has about his space, especially his individual micro climate, his querencia, for example, the cabañuelas for Taos will not be the same as those for Santa Fe or Albuquerque, much less Las Cruces. Cabañuelas apply only to the micro climate where the individual agriculturalist is reading them and it takes years and generations passed on orally to acquire this knowledge.

The system is somewhat complicated. Let’s take for example the month of June; we know that the month is represented by the 6th and 19th of January; the afternoon and night of the 27th and the hours of 12 noon to 1:59 in the afternoon of the 31st. Through these calculations, history and accumulated knowledge it can be determined when it will rain, which months will be the hottest, when it will be cold, when it will freeze. It must be kept in mind that the cabañuelas do not fail the individual; it is the individual who does not fully understand the cabañuelas and is thus unable to correctly interpret them.

Farmers have always been pragmatic, that is, they rely on the cabañuelas but they also rely on information gathered from real farmers, people who know the land, the weather, and the cycles of the seasons; people who work the land and have learned from others who have worked the land.  Their knowledge is time tested but their labor is what brings in the crops: it is said that “hombre lunero no llena granero (men who spend too much time observing the moon, don’t fill up the granery),”  or “labrador con mucha astronomía en eso se pasa el día (the farm laborer who spends his time with astronomy, in the meantime lets the work day go by)."


1. Covarrubias Orozco, Sebastián de, Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana or Española,  1611, Edición de Felipe C. R. Maldonado revisada por Manuel Camarero, Segunda Edición Corregida, Nueva Biblioteca de Erudición y Critíca, Editorial Castalia, S.A. 1995

2. Personal observations based on oral histories over the past 35 years and also as a practitioner of traditional agriculture and acequia irrigation within the Merced del Embudo de Nuestro Señor San Antonio in the Embudo Watershed. Writer is currently writing on two books dealing with acequias and traditional agriculture.

3. Santamaría, Francisco J., Diccionario de Mejicanismos, Editorial Porrúa, S.A. México, 1992.