In the Modern Spanish American Dictionary luminaria means lamp kept burning and/or festival light. In Mexico and the American Southwest luminarias are part of a traditional Christmas celebration. For three centuries, the Spanish villages along the Rio Grande have been displaying their unique Christmas Lanterns or ‘Luminarias’. This unique custom, which originated in the Rio Grande Valley, now appears in many parts of the world.
When the little lights that burn at Christmas are placed along roads, walks, and rooftops, the sight is beautiful. The idea was to symbolically light the way for Joseph, Mary, and the Christ Child. In the Rio Grande Valley, luminarias are also set out for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, December 12, or for a great family fiesta. In the cities and suburban areas, luminarias are sometimes used to designate the home where a grand party is given.
The first luminarias were bonfires of crisscrossed pinon boughs built in three-foot-high squares. When colored wrapping paper was brought from the Orient, the first small paper lantern was made. The idea of burning a light or lantern was borrowed from Spain and Old Mexico, where these were used on festive occasions. Instead of hanging the fragile new lanterns from trees or on wires, they were placed on the ground, patio, walls, and rooftops.
In the 1820’s, Yankee traders brought brown paper sacks down the Santa Fe Trail. This made the candle-sack luminarias accessible to all, and this manner of making luminarias has never been improved. The glow of the candles through the brown paper sacks on a dark night, multiplied by the thousands, is an awesome sight. That’s all it takes paper bags, a little sand for ballast & tea candles; you have instant glow. Traditionally, these are lit at sundown on Christmas Eve after most other lights in and around the home have been extinguished. The warm glow on one of the darkest and longest nights of the year continues until the candles burn out, having done their job of putting extra holiday season joy in your heart.
Albuquerque & Santa Fe are famous for their luminarias at Christmas. The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix has Las Noches de las Luminarias every December for the entire month with over 8000 hand lit luminaria bags. Our neighborhood in Scottsdale every Christmas Eve & Christmas Night sets out 100’s of luminarias for those two days. It is a time of fellowship with our community and a chance to step back and enjoy the beauty of the season.
Albuquerque is famous for their holiday Luminarias
From the town square in Santa Fe at dusk
The Old Mission at Tumacacori, Arizona
Las Noches de las Luminarias at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix at sunset.