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.
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
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,
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.
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
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
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