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Farolito or Luminaria?

Albuquerque, New...
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Farolito or Luminaria?

Farolitos or Luminarias? Here's some fun for the holiday season, I hope. This question almost rivals the official state question, red or green? This is based on what I’ve come to know or heard or read. Please join in with your comments, corrections, anecdotes, knowledge, biases, experiences, observations, etymologies, family history, and even links and photographs, and anything else that adds some enlightenment (so to speak) to this debate. It may be a good opportunity to add your own favorite memories and experiences about farolitos and luminarias in particular and about the season in general, as well as any seasonal tips that may benefit those who haven’t yet experienced the season in New Mexico. I personally would also appreciate any illumination on luminarias as a word used to describe altar lamps or festival lights.

On Christmas Eve, candlelights line the streets and houses in New Mexico. The words, farolitos and luminarias, are often interchangeably used in New Mexico to name the lights, which are constructed of a brown paper bag (think of your sack lunch), sand (to weigh the bag down and hold the candle in place), and a votive or tea candle. The lights are placed in lines and rows on the ground, along streets and sidewalks, around plazas, and on porches, parapets, porticos, and the flat rooftops in New Mexico. In a land which has had a large Catholic population, these lights traditionally have had a religious, symbolic significance for lighting the way of the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. The lights have been adopted in other places, and sometimes have been replaced by strings of plastic sacks and electric bulbs.

In Santa Fe and elsewhere in northern New Mexico, there is a long-held distinction between farolito, meaning one of these paper lights, and luminaria, meaning a small vigil fire or bonfire, but there are reports from some families and communities in this region, apparently less common by prevailing accounts, which call the small bonfires farolitos and the paper lights luminarias. In northern New Mexico, especially, the bonfire is traditionally constructed of fragrant piñon branches criss-crossed and stacked like a small box. The small bonfire may be used to mark a home hosting Las Posadas, a neighborhood re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem (a posada is an inn) which takes place each night for nine nights before Christmas and which may include singing, praying, and food. Luminarias is the word used in Santa Fe for the bonfires found around the Canyon Road neighborhood on Christmas Eve. It is said, too, that these luminarias were originally used to light the way to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Either luminarias or farolitos may also describe the candlelights used in the procession of Las Posadas.

Farolito appears to be a local word based on the Spanish word for lantern, “farol,” a word that may also be used loosely to describe a streetlamp. (El Farol, a long-established restaurant and cantina on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, has a lantern hanging in its porch.) Farolito is also close in form to farolillo, a Spanish word which is usually translated as a Chinese lantern. Some New Mexicans will swear that farolito means “little light;” others will claim it means “little fire;” but the better translation, the one espoused by northern New Mexicans most often, appears to be “little lantern.” Thus, the paper lights along the ground and on the rooftops are little lanterns or farolitos.

Luminaria doesn’t mean bonfire, per se. In Spanish, luminaria means a light or an illumination (la luz is the light), and there are other Spanish words used to describe bonfires. The word, luminaria, may be used in more specific contexts to describe festival lights, or an altar or sanctuary light or lamp, or a lamp which is kept burning in Catholic churches before the sacrament, or those candles lit before statues of saints in a Catholic church.

In Albuquerque, the candle-lit lights protected in paper bags, lining Old Town and the adjacent neighborhoods in the thousands, are still best known as luminarias. Luminarias appears to be the word used most often to describe the paper lights in other parts of the country which have adopted them and to describe festival lights in other countries.

It is an ongoing, sometimes contentious, usually light-hearted, debate. While there is a belief that the words are synonymous, there is also a belief that the words divide the state geographically, with farolito prevailing in the northern part of New Mexico and luminaria prevailing in the southern part of New Mexico.

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1. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

My favorite is going up Highway 68 near Velarde on Christmas Eve.

santafenewmexican.com/LocalNews/Celebrating-…

Colorado
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2. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

And the luminarias are beautiful around the Plaza in Old Mesilla. Were always lighted while we were at Mass in the Basilica!

Albuquerque, New...
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3. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

We lived in Sacramento for two years in a Senior mobile park. We put luminarias on the roof, and across the front of our mobile home, and everyone in the park stopped us to ask what those "things" were. We took great delight in telling them about the luminarias, and guess what?, the next year several more mobile homes put them out.

These were the electric ones, so we weren't really being authentic, but they sure looked pretty, and brought us memories of New Mexico at Christmas.

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4. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

Luminarias. I put them out every year.

Santa Fe, New Mexico
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5. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

Farolitos here! We put out both real and electric!

Albuquerque, New...
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6. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

How do we keep electric luminarias on the top of the house? The wind keeps bringing them down--even the ones we put along the driveway with nails into the ground.

Thank you for any advice.

Taos, New Mexico
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7. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

Wind and little bags don't mix. We use a silicon gel to secure over 200 to our roofline and they come loose from time to time. Part of the deal.

On the ground, we try to limit the height of the 500 or so we line our lane, courtyard, drive, and parking area with. Again, wind does what it will and we reset them.

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8. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

That question is addressed in December's New Mexico Magazine in Going Places, "You Say Farolito, I say Luminaria" . It is the best December issue since I have subscribed.

We only did the Canyon Road Walk one year, 2006, and we need to come back. We live between Colorado Springs and Denver in a rural area and that year we had quite a bit of snow. We were stranded. With more snow forecast we thought we would have to cancel our plans to drive down on Saturday. (Christmas was Monday that year.)

By Friday afternoon, still stranded, I was about to call and cancel our reservations when I heard the road scraper outside. I hopped in my car to make sure it was clear to the interstate, came back, packed fast and we sped away for New Mexico.

By the time we got to Santa Fe it was dark and we were starving. We went out to the plaza to find a restaurant but there was this line outside Saint Francis. There was to be a concert that night of Christmas carols in the Basilica, how could we miss that, we could always eat later.

Next morning we took the High Road up and back between SF and Taos to look at the many churches and pueblos dressed up for the holiday.. By the time we got back to Chimayo it was dark but there were no lights on the chapel! I noticed a priest working in the office to the left of the entry way so I tapped on the door window and inquired. He said that the lights were on a timer but he could turn on some of them. He did, I took some pictures, it was splendid.

The next night, Sunday, we did The Walk. It was a wonderful trip. The only downer was when we were on our way back home, we heard on the radio that James Brown had died that Christmas morning. They played his Christmas Album while we drove north, a weird Christmas album, but moving just the same that day. I have sort of a history with that album, but that's another story.

Charlie

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9. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

Oops, I saw this question about the electric luminarias here but answered it in a comment on another post on Christmas in Santa Fe, which gives a nice summary of some traditions in Santa Fe. Anyway, as I said, I gave up on the plastic and electric ones because of the wind. While it's nice to have the electric ones up for weeks around the holidays, I found it easier to spend the time collecting my bags and candles and sand and putting them all out on Christmas Eve (or get a local group, like scouts, to set you up). We sure can get some wind...as this Sunday and Monday showed. I have seen the plastic ones nailed to blocks of wood. I used to pile rocks around them, too. Not sure what you'd do for roof; those may be more permanently affixed and explain why some are up year-round.

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10. Re: Farolito or Luminaria?

Thank you for your reply, Destination, even though it wasn't very encouraging... :) Appreciate your time and ideas.