Farilitos and Luminarias

Christmas Eve in New Mexico is a picturesque event rich in tradition and cultural heritage. The flickering lights of farolitos line the streets and sidewalks of homes and churches throughout the Land of Enchantment to celebrate the birth of the Christ child. For me, the small paper lanterns symbolically welcome Baby Jesus into the world, and into our hearts on this most holy of all nights.

Farolitos is the Spanish word for “little lanterns.” In the sixteenth century, small bonfires called luminarias were burned alongside the roads and churchyards to commemorate Christ’s birth and to guide people to Midnight Mass the final night of Las Posadas.

Luminarias By the early nineteenth century, US settlers brought beautiful Chinese lanterns to hang from their doorways instead of building bonfires. But the Chinese lanterns were too expensive so people began to make small paper lanterns out of paper sacks as an alternative.

The night of Las Posadas (Spanish word meaning lodging or inn) is a festive celebration that was first introduced to the Mexican Indians by European missionaries by reenacting the story of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem in a series of nine consecutive nights, beginning

December 16th. Each night a group of carolers would go from house to house and sing a song in Spanish pleading for food and shelter. Some homes would turn them away, but others would invite them in and offer posole, red and green chile stews, Christmas Eve tamales, biscoshitos, etc.

These plays originally were conducted in the churches but eventually moved into peoples homes. Now Las Posadas is done in just one evening; Christmas Eve. After the festivities are complete, everyone then goes to Christmas Mass, and the luminarias and farolitos show the way.

Farolitos are easy to make and add beauty and tradition to your Christmas celebration. All you need are: paper sacks, sand, and votive candles. If the wind is blowing hard the night you put them out, place a small brick or rocks inside the bag to weight it down. Line the bags in a row on the edges of your sidewalks and driveways.

Farolitos A modern variation of these decorations are electric lights in bags and you can find them in many stores. However, personally I think the homemade ones are the prettiest. Albuquerque’s Old Town has farolitos lined all down its streets on Christmas Eve, as do other towns like Santa Fe, Taos and Las Cruces. They even have bus tours so that the area isn’t as congested with traffic.

You can of course get together with others in your community and set up your own farolitos display in your neighborhood.

There are ways to make your farolitos more decorative. Stencil Christmas patterns onto the front of your bags, and using an ex-acto knife, cut out the patterns, then tape colored crepe paper inside the bags.

A final note. People in Albuquerque tend to call the paper bag lanterns, luminarias, but natives from Santa Fe insist the correct term is farolitos. As I mentioned earlier, a true luminaria is a series of small bonfires lining the roads. Whatever you choose to call them is up to you. But do think about setting some out this Christmas and add a new tradition to your holidays no matter where you live.

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