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New Mexico’s Ancient Christmas Tradition

Farolitos line the walls of a home in Santa Fe. Photo: Jack Parsons

Christmas in New Mexico is a crisp, snowy season full of hot cinnamon churros, fresh empanadas, and smoky, sweet piñon wood fires. It’s one of the only times of the year where you can see snow-covered cacti, and people from all over the country head into the high desert for the calm, quiet serenity of the Southwest. If you’ve spent the holiday season tucked under thick, Navajo blankets and sipping cinnamon-spiced hot chocolate, then you’ve likely seen the lines of bright luminarias running along the homes, towns, and cities of the Southwest– or are they farolitos

Whether you’re from Santa Fe and call it a farolito (“little lantern”), you’re in Albuquerque and know it as a luminaria, or you’re just visiting and don’t know what to call a candle in a paper bag, you probably don’t know the history of this southwestern winter tradition. The first written account of “luminarias” was on December 3, 1590, when Spanish explorer Gaspar Costaño de Sosa wrote about the little bonfires running along the road to guide people back to camp. This first record created a new tradition for New Mexican families. On Christmas Eve they would line the paths to their homes with the soft, bright light of small bonfires to illuminate the way for anyone seeking shelter on that cold, quiet night. Luminaria means “light” in Spanish, and when flat-bottomed paper bags were invented in 1872, the small bonfires were replaced with a votive candle surrounded by sand in a paper sack. 

Building adorned with Farolitos. Photo: Nedra Westwater

However, if you’re from Santa Fe then a candle in a paper bag is called a farolito, Spanish for “little lantern.” The debate between farolitos and luminarias has burned between New Mexicans for years, and New Mexico’s House of Representatives even passed a resolution stating both farolito and luminaria were alright to say, according to The Encyclopedia of Santa Fe by Mark H Cross. Shortly after, the Senate – meeting in Santa Fe – passed a resolution that farolito was the correct term. The origins of farolito are relatively unknown, but some sources suggest an origin story straight out of a Clint Eastwood film.

“It was Christmas Eve, 1872. The notorious outlaw Joaquín “Dusty” Faro and his gang had emptied the vault at Santa Fe’s First National Bank and were galloping toward their hideout when an avenging posse headed them off at the pass,” The Santa Fe Reporter states. “They were out of options. Reluctantly, they lined up their bulging loot bags along the Santa Fe Trail and set fire to them to destroy the evidence.” The story goes on to say, the posse followed the trail of burning dollar bills until they eventually caught up to the gang and dealt out frontier justice in the flickering light of farolitos. The sight was so beautiful that they named the bags “Faro-litos” in honor of the fallen outlaw. Reportedly, the posse sang Silent Night that Christmas Eve. While this is in no way verifiable, it’s a sweet tale to tell in front of a crackling piñon wood fire.

Farolitos at the San José de los Jémez Mission Church. Photo: PD Tillman, Wikipedia

All is Calm, All is Bright

On Christmas Eve in New Mexico luminaria line the tops of buildings, the sides of roads, the front steps of homes, and the way to the local churches. Aside from being a beautiful spectacle with an arguable origin, they are a valuable part of Las Posadas, a religious tradition that celebrates the journey of the holy family from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Taking place over 9 days from December 16th to December 25th, the celebration includes a parade, songs, special holiday foods (like tamales, pastelitos, and biscochitos), and luminarias lighting the way. The luminarias (or farolitos) serve to help the holy family find shelter, and during Las Posadas (“The Inn’s” in English) folks dress up like angels, shepherds, and kings knocking on doors seeking shelter. Then the neighbors respond with a response and a song, and they celebrate together.

Rudolfo Anaya, an award-winning New Mexico author, reflected on Christmastime in his home state, “Luminaria and farolito both refer to light, and Christmas is about the light of renewal.” He writes in The Farolitos of Christmas. “The spectacular array of glowing lights remind us that each of us carry the light of Christmas within.” Anyone gazing upon the rows of soft light might be overcome with the spirit of giving. Each luminaria represents new beginnings after a long hardship. Every light showing family, friends, and strangers the way home. Anaya ends his book with a message that bears specific mention, this year in particular. He writes, “I invite you to be part of the Christmas traditions and customs of New Mexico, and let the child in you be touched by the spiritual message embodied in this season of renewal.” 

In the quiet moments this holiday season, after the presents are unwrapped and Christmas dinner is reduced to crumbs, it’s important to remember that tomorrow is a new day and a new year is just around the corner.

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