Over the years, even linguists have disagreed. Their arguments for and against fill a fat file at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. Among the few certainties: Before the 1872 invention of flat-bottomed paper bags, before the ready availability of votive candles, and before electricity and strings of “icicle lights,” New Mexicans marked the paths to their doors and the local church with small, Sosa-style bonfires on Christmas Eve—symbolically lighting the way for the Holy Family.
Chinese paper lanterns found their way to Santa Fe via the 18th-century Manila galleons and El Camino Real, but the fragile paper didn’t invite outdoor use. Once cheaper paper bags arrived on the Santa Fe Trail, locals discovered they could fold down the tops, anchor them with a few handfuls of sand, and set a small candle inside for a subtler display that didn’t deplete the winter woodpile.
But what to call them? Some folks stuck with luminaria—“light” in Spanish. Others adopted farolito, from farol, the Spanish word for “lantern.” In the 1930s, as more people got the paper-bag bug, newspaper articles dithered, alternately calling them farolitos, linternitas, and farolillos. In 1958, the august New York Times chimed in, but said Albuquerqueans called them farolitos, further confusing the geography. Before his 1996 death, author and historian Fray Angélico himself waded into the debate and essentially concluded, “Whatever.”
Today the bags-and-candles tradition stretches from California to Maine. In Santa Fe, the Christmas Eve Farolito Walk on Canyon Road is a beloved community event (farolitowalk.com). Head out after sundown to stroll the streets (no cars allowed!) and meet some locals in front of their shops and homes. Just don’t compliment them on their luminarias. You’re in the north now.
As for those plastic versions bedecking rooflines throughout the holiday season, take it from renowned Santa Fe archaeologist Cordelia Snow, whose 1991 letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican cheekily dubbed them “electrolitos.”
- Kate Nelson, from the pages of New Mexico Magazine
6 TOP PLACES TO SEE LUMINARIAS/FAROLITOS IN NEW MEXICO
CANYON ROAD FAROLITO WALK
December 24th – Santa Fe
One of Santa Fe’s most beloved holiday traditions. Locals and visitors stroll charming Canyon Road, lit with farolitos and luminarias, greeting old friends and making new ones, sipping hot chocolate and singing carols.
ELEPHANT BUTTE LUMINARIA BEACHWALK
December 9th – Elephant Butte Lake State Park
Thousands of luminarias line the beach, while community-sponsored campsites warm the soul with posolé, cocoa, s’mores and more! Hop on a hayride, join the carolers, or just take in the Floating Lights Parade.
CHRISTMAS ON THE CHICORICA
December 16th- Sugarite Canyon State Park
Get in the holiday spirit and stroll at Sugarite Canyon State Park by the light of 1,500 luminarias. Enjoy Christmas carols, munch on cookies and peek through the park telescope. And don't forget to visit Santa!
CHRISTMAS EVE IN OLD MESILLA
December 24th - Mesilla
The historic village of Old Mesilla is set aglow as residents and merchants line the streets with thousands of luminarias. Sing along as local choirs serenade the crowds with traditional Christmas carols.
LIGHT AMONG THE RUINS
December 9th - Jemez Historic Site
This FREE annual family event is noted far-and-wide for the thousand plus farolitos outlining the historic ruins of "Gisewa" Pueblo and San José de los Jemez Mission Church, for the traditional Jemez song and dance performed between two bonfires (luminarias), and for the delicious Pueblo food and art available for purchase during this event.
OLD TOWN LUMINARIA TOUR
December 24th- Albuquerque
Drive through beautifully lit neighborhoods with thousands of luminarias lighting the way. The Albuquerque holiday tradition involves paper sacks filled with sand and a single candle to light up rooftops and walkways.