There's a temptation to see Santa Fe as an adobe Disneyland. Because the town's driven by tourism, visitors can see a surface sheen at times that a person could almost skate on.

But underneath the marketing, the Old Santa Fe still glows. And at Christmas the spirit of the place shines through like a star."It's refreshing to see a town like Santa Fe that maintains its traditions," says Zach Van Eyck, a reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican for three years. "Coming to Utah I liked seeing the variety of housing and decorations here, but I also liked the way Santa Fe has tried to keep things low key. It's the understated nature of the place that draws people. And religion and tradition go hand in hand there."

Once you learn the city's true name is "The Royal Road of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi," you realize that separating Christmas and Catholicism would be impossible. But more than that, no one wants to try. The "City Different" - as it's been called - doesn't make distinctions.

The town is the oldest Capital City in North America. It was the last stop on the famous Santa Fe Trail and is the trademark for the country's largest railway system. But more than that, at Christmas a sense of peace and serenity takes over that can be found in few other towns - especially havens for tourists.

The holiday begins on December 12, when the town celebrates La Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe - the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a little Indian boy in Mexico 450 years ago. Soon, the holiday burns on in the traditional "luminarias" (little fires that are built to symbolize the fires that warmed the shepherds who "watched their flocks by night") and the "farolitos" (the little paper sacks filled with sand and lighted candles that line the rooftops and walkways like lanterns). "No other Christmas custom has so vividly captured the imagination of countless visitors to Santa Fe than the traditional lighting which is commonly called `farolitos,' " writes historian Pedro Ribera Ortega.

Another tradition that has survived several centuries is the ritual of "Las Posadas." In this gentle drama, children - or adults - portray Joseph and Mary as they go door to door looking for "room at the inn." As they sing their songs, a procession builds. (Posadas are held the nine nights before Christmas, so Joseph and Mary are turned away eight times). To begin, participants gather in a church or other predetermined place and sing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. Then the trek starts.

Joseph and Mary go looking for rest at local homes, singing: "From a very long journey, we've arrived and are weary, and come to implore you for shelter this night."

The "innkeepers" reply, "Who is it that disturbs our rest? And bothers us now in the night? Go away, go away, please, and stop robbing us of sleep!"

Reads an early guidebook for New Mexico: "In no other region of the United States is Christmas so colorful and alive with contrast as it is in the Southwest. The treasures of this unique cultural heritage are on brilliant display during the season of the celebration of the birth of Christ . . . they are like jewels of tradition which surround us like open sparkling treasure chests, and all for us to savor and enjoy."

Still, apart from all the pine and pepper displays, away from the Christmas Eve midnight masses at the 300-year-old churches and the hundreds of Nativity scenes featuring African, Indian and even Polish shepherds and wise men - there is something in the Southwest that other regions lack: tranquility.

Walking through the Santa Fe plaza after dark, or circling Albuquerque's Old Town or sitting in the main square in Taos, one finds the most valuable commodity Christmas can offer: peace.

At midnight a soul can actually meditate in Santa Fe's plaza and feel the heavens above and the earth below.

Yes, the Southwest has its turmoil. As Van Eyck points out, Los Alamos County is the focus of fevered land speculation. Gas prices are sky-high, food prices are rising. Residents complain that all their children are moving away. Santa Fe High School has a gaggle of gangs. Shirley MacLaine wants to buy a mountain. Stewart Udall and Brian Dennehy want to stop her.

But during Christmas Advent, such things find their proper level. It's not that the Yule season in Santa Fe can erase the bickering and controversies, but those who take time to examine a hand-carved creche on a Santa Fe starry night or try to hear the church bells from the outskirts of town have a pretty good chance of keeping the hum and buzz of commerce in perspective.