I recently hosted an old friend here at our Albuquerque Bed and Breakfast. We have been friends since high school and since he lives on the other side of the U.S. in Mississippi, we keep in touch with Facebook and email. He went to UNM here in Albuquerque back in the late ’70s and brought a couple of his UNM college buddies with him for a nostalgic quickie road trip around the state. When we went out to dinner they were happy to experience the nostagia of luminarias all over the businesses in the valley, and seemed quite surprised to hear the ones they were looking at were plastic.
“They must be making millions with those”, one of them exclaimed. I bet they are.
Traditionally, luminarias are small brown paper bags with sand in them and a candle. They are lit and displayed on Christmas Eve. When someone got the bright idea (yes, pun intended), to make them from plastic, and make them electric, the people went crazy and they now adorn even the tallest buildings in the city. To me this is pretty, but they aren’t as special because they are displayed for the whole Christmas season just light regular Christmas lights, and I believe the luminaria tradition is like a special rock concert – one night only! Some people say the plastic luminarias are safer, but gee – can’t we all be a little daring, if only for one night to save tradition?
Some Cemeteries in Albuquerque are adorned with the traditional luminarias on Christmas Eve, and one of the most beautiful places to view this beautiful sight is Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Martineztown, which is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Albuquerque. If you go early there will be crowds as people adorn the graves of their loved ones starting at dusk. I always go late, near 9:30 -10pm and the view is even better with less people blocking the view.
Traditional Luminarias - To create luminarias the traditional way, use small brown paper bags (the larger sized lunch sacks will do, but not the really small ones). Fold down the top edge of the paper sack all the way around so it stays open easily and fill bottom with a cup or two of sand. Place a votive candle pressed down into the sand and light up – the candle. That’s it – no rocket science here folks. Some people use tea light candles but I find they are not heavy enough to be very stable and the light is supposed to stay lit well past midnight, so if you like them at dusk – which is the traditional time, the tea lights won’t make it to midnight.
Free Sand in Albuquerque for Luminarias – Most every cement plant in Albuquerque offers up free sand, and piles of free sand will tun up all over in Albuquerque’s empty lots, but a sure bet is Buildology – 3601 Pan Amer. Fwy NE, Southbound Frontage road between Comanche & Candelaria. Thanks, Buildology!!!
The exact origin of the luminarias is really unknown, but they have been around for hundreds of years, and at first in the form of little bon fires used to light the way to midnight Mass on Christmas even in small villages and towns throughout New Mexico. This evolved into what we have today. My favorite explanation of this traditions is Rudolfo Anaya’s book, The Farolitos of Christmas. It’s the story I used to read to my kids and the one I’m sticking to.
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Sarah Dolk, Adobe Nido Bed & Breakfast
Expert on Destination Albuquerque and Central New Mexico!