The glowing brown sacks that adorn Albuquerque walkways, churches and homes each holiday season are called luminarias (sometimes called farolitos), or “little lanterns,” and date back more than 300 years. The New Mexican tradition began when Spanish villages along the Rio Grande displayed the unique and easy-to-make lanterns to welcome the Christ child into the world. Today, Albuquerque residents make luminarias out of brown paper bags that have been folded at the top and filled with a couple of cups of sand with a votive candle in the center.
But luminarias or farolitos have not always been made out of paper bags. The early versions were actually small bonfires of crisscrossed piñon branches that were built in three-foot-high squares. As paper became more widely available, luminarias evolved into what they are today. Instead of making paper lanterns that would hang in a tree or from a roof, which would become damaged by the wind, small paper bags were placed on the ground, on rooftops and along pathways.
Many churches, families and neighborhoods around Albuquerque decorate their homes and businesses with luminarias for the holidays. In Old Town, where they line the walkways by the hundreds throughout the plaza, their simple light transforms into an impressive and welcoming glow, leading to the historic San Felipe de Neri Church and its Christmas Eve mass. Spectators enjoy the annual tradition of a stroll through the magnificent holiday light display, or a driving tour through Historic Old Town and the nearby Albuquerque Country Club neighborhood.
How to Make a Luminaria
Fold each brown paper bag at the top to create about a one-inch fold.
Fill each bag with enough sand to weigh them down so they won’t blow away. A couple of cups of sand should do it.
Nestle a votive candle, tea candle or flameless LED candle into the sand at the bottom of each bag. If using candles with real wicks, be sure to place them in the center of the bag, not near the bag’s sides.
Place your luminarias or farolitos on the ground a few feet apart from one another to line walkways and other pathways.
Just before dusk on Christmas Eve, use a long match or a long-handled butane flame lighter to light the wick of each candle in each bag (or turn on the battery-operated LED candles).
Enjoy and take in the beauty and magic of this local holiday tradition.