Learn About Christmas Luminarias, Farolitos and Southwest Celebrations

Southwest Light Traditions

Cactus decorated as santa claus
••• Johner Images / Getty Images

Christmas in the Southwest is a beautiful time. As many areas have mild evening temperatures, outdoor celebrations have become holiday traditions. Lighting the way to a festive time in the Southwest are luminarias or farolitos. Simply put, these are candles carefully placed in sand inside a bag, providing a warm glow at night.

In the Beginning, Bonfires Led the Way

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, the symbolic representation of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem walking from home to home before Jesus was born. In later days, children carried small farolitos as they re-enacted Las Posadas.

How to Use Luminarias and Farolitos

Now people use luminarias or farolitos to decorate the path to their door, as well as outlining the roofline of their home with these warm, inviting lights. People 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. We use the terms interchangeably.

Make Your Own

Making luminarias or farolitos is fairly easy.

Just purchase paper bags, votive candles and gather some sand. Crafty people will cut holiday shapes in the bags. Fill each bag with several inches of sand and press the votive candle in the center of the sand 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 with lining your walkway and skip the more dangerous positioning of luminaries on your roof. Choose a dry night with little wind. Luminarias with votives (or tea lights) will usually burn about four hours before going out. You'll probably be headed to bed about that time.

See Grand Displays of Farolitos, Luminarias and Southwest Holiday Lights

Want to see some of the Southwest's most impressive displays of holiday lights? Here are a few places to check.

  • Santa Fe's Canyon Road
  • Rio de Las Luces (the River of Lights at Albuquerque's Botanic Garden)
  • Noches de Las Luminarias at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Ariz.
  • Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico's Luminaria Festival
  • The Tlaquepaque Luminaria Festival in Sedona, Ariz.
  • The Luminaria Festival in Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. On Christmas Eve, there are luminaries placed throughout the valley that visitors can drive through to see.