Learn About Christmas Luminarias, Farolitos, and Southwest Festivities

Cactus decorated as santa claus
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Christmas in the Southwest is a beautiful time. Many travelers visit destinations like the Grand Canyon, stay in gorgeous Taos vacation homes, and walk along the San Antonio River Walk for a special celebration for the holiday season. Because many areas have mild evening temperatures, outdoor celebrations have become holiday traditions. Lighting the way to a festive time in the Southwest includes a popular tradition involving luminarias or farolitos. Simply put, these are candles that are carefully placed in sand inside of a bag, providing a warm glow at night.

History of Luminarias and Farolitos

These lights have their roots in the 1800s. Small bonfires—like the current day bonfires on the corners of Canyon Road in Santa Fe—were used to guide people to Christmas Mass. Quite often, they were set out during the final night of Las Posadas, which is the symbolic representation of when Mary and Joseph were seeking shelter in Bethlehem as they walked from home to home before Jesus was born. In later days, children carried small farolitos as they re-enacted Las Posadas. Similar celebrations take place in Santa Fe each night, for nine nights before Christmas, and include rituals like songs, prayers, and big feasts.

How to Use Luminarias and Farolitos

People use luminarias or farolitos today to decorate the path to their door and outline the roofline of their home with warm, inviting lights. Those in Albuquerque tend to call the paper bag lanterns "luminarias," but natives from Santa Fe insist the correct term is "farolitos." Historically, a true luminaria is a series of small bonfires lining the roads, while a farolito is a small paper lantern. Regardless, the two terms are used interchangeably today.

How to Make Your Own Lights

Making luminarias or farolitos is fairly easy. Individuals can purchase paper bags, votive candles, and sand at their local arts and crafts store. Crafty people often cut holiday shapes in the bags for an added festive touch. To make your own lights, simply fill each bag with several inches of sand and press the votive candle in the center of it so that the flame does not touch the paper. To avoid the risk of fire, you can also use battery-operated, electric candles. 

For the novice, begin by lining your walkway, rather than your roof. It is best to choose a dry night with little wind for this project. Luminarias with votives, or tea lights, will usually burn for about four hours before going out.

Where to See Southwest Holiday Light Displays

The following locations put on a show for some of the Southwest region's most impressive displays of holiday lights:

  • Canyon Road Farolito Walk: In Santa Fe, more than 30,000 people gather at Canyon Road on Christmas Eve to see the thousands of farolitos in the courtyards, galleries, and adobe houses.
  • Rio de Las Luces: The River of Lights at Albuquerque's Botanic Garden is New Mexico's biggest walk-through light show, with millions of twinkling lights and luminarias in 500 holiday displays.
  • Noches de Las Luminarias: The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, puts on its annual Electric Desert during the month of December. It features 8,000 hand-lit luminarias and thousands of holiday lights.
  • The Tlaquepaque Luminaria Festival: In Sedona, Arizona, visitors sip cider and explore the 6,000 luminarias lit around Tlaquepaque as part of its Festival of Lights.
  • The Luminaria Festival: On Christmas Eve, there are luminaries placed throughout Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico that visitors can drive through to see.