Luminarias light up the Night

by Anthony Romero-Kleve

They’re just paper bags filled with sand and little candles, but here in New Mexico, these holidays lights have special historical and cultural meaning. 

Here, lighting luminarias or farolitos (we’ll get to that debate in a bit) a cultural staple for native New Mexicans and an Insta-worthy opportunity for tourists.

One story goes that the tradition of luminaries in the Rio Grande Valley began in December, 1590, when Portuguese conquistador Gaspar Costaño de Sosa lit small fires along a trail to help a lost scout find his way back to camp.

But there are many theories about the origins of luminarias, says deputy state historian Nicolasa Chavez. There’s been a long tradition of lighting little fires at Christmas to symbolize lighting the way for Mary and Joseph.

Several Pueblo communities light luminaries at Christmas or light pathways for other winter festivities, and many families do the same.

But are they luminaries or farolitos?

“Nowadays, both words are used for the same item, however, historically, the origins were different,” Chavez says. The word farolito comes from the word farol, meaning paper lantern in Spanish.

The word luminaria originally meant a little bonfire, from the root of the word meaning to illuminate.. The difference is most notable between people who live in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

“South of La Bajada, everyone calls them luminarias, but up here, we use the original term, farolitos,” says Chavez, a Santa Fean.

As more and more New Mexicans grow up speaking English, luminaria has become the more common term because it’s closer to English words, she says.

Ana Pacheco, a historian and Santa Fe native says she’s seen the tradition expand and now some families surround the gravestones of loved ones with luminaria on special days.

Every year UNM student Andres Torres and his family go to Mount Calvary cemetery on Christmas Eve and light handmade luminarias.

“My uncle Mike used to put them out for his brother, who died a while back,” Torres says. Now he, his brothers and his dad do the same for other family members.

“There is a deep connection I feel when doing this,” he says. It starts as soon as the luminaries are all lit and he steps back to take in the scene. It can be an emotional experience.

But newcomers to New Mexico also appreciate luminarias.

Graduate student Alexander Marx of Germany noticed the lights during his first Christmas in New Mexico in 2015. He says he thinks they add to the state’s unique charm.

“I think they are beautiful,” he says. “They are lights, yes, but they are not as bright and obnoxious as more modern Christmas lights, they are rather soft and cozy.” 

Photo by Kevin Eddy, licensed Creative Commons.

If you’d like to see them for yourself, here are some upcoming events featuring luminaries, er, farolitos, or whichever you like. 

Las Posadas of Santa Fe – Santa Fe – December 11th, 2022

Canyon Road Farolito Walk – Santa Fe – December 24th, 2022

ABQ Luminaria Tour – Albuquerque – December 24th