Christmas Luminarias and Farolitos

Celebrating the Holidays in the American Southwest

Luminarias Overlooking El Paso and Juarez
VallarieE / Getty Images

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—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, when Catholic settlers used small bonfires to guide the spirit of the baby Jesus to their homes on Christmas Eve. Today, farolitos or luminarias are usually made from candles placed inside paper bags and are a common holiday decoration across New Mexico and the Southwest.

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 before Jesus was born. Children also carry small farolitos as they re-enact Las Posadas, taking them from house to house while people follow and sing. These celebrations take place each night for the nine nights before Christmas, and include rituals like music, 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. Paper bags, votive candles, and sand can be purchased at an 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.

Farolitos in courtyard on Canyon Road.
Ralph Lee Hopkins / Getty Images

Where to See Southwest Holiday Light Displays

These 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.

River of Lights: 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. It's open nightly from November 30 to December 30, 2019.

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, on display on weekends throughout December.

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, held on December 14, 2019.

The Luminaria Festival: On Christmas Eve, there are luminarias placed throughout the Native American town of Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, that visitors can drive through to see.