The lighting of farolitos goes back many, many years in my family.  Mom used to set out the paper bags with candles in them each winter, lighting them at dusk and putting them out again as we prepared for bed.  It is a wonderful image from my childhood, and I treasure the memories of seeing the beautiful lights flickering in the evening darkness.  As an adult, I continued this tradition, but didn’t really think about the full meaning and background of luminarias and farolitos.

A traditional luminria is a small stack of piñon wood, lighting the way for the wise men as they travel through the village to the church. These small bonfires are typically lit on Christmas Eve, celebrating the traditional Midnight Mass and the arrival of the Christ Child.

The luminarias have evolved to paper bags with sand to hold them in place, with small candles inside that are lit and protected from the wind by the bags.  This led to the term farol, which means lantern.  So what we name luminarias today are really farolitos, or little lanterns of paper bags, sand, and candles.

In the Southwest, we see farolitos atop adobe walls, or lining the walkway to the house, guiding the wise men on their way.  This led to the use of strings of electric lights atop houses, shining brightly in the Christmas season.  Michael and I love to drive around our town in December, looking at the different displays of lights.

It is an even better outing with some of the grandkids in the back of the SUV, as they point and exclaim at the brightly lit and colorful scenes.  And every now and then, we see a farolito, or a cluster of them lighting the path, and I am immediately transported back to those simple childhood days of long ago.  And now I can share the story of farolitos and luminarias with my grandchildren, and help them connect the dots between luminarias, farolitos, and rooftop lights, and the journey of the wise men as they traveled to Bethlehem.

This Christmas, consider placing a farolito on the porch, or even in the window, and share the story with your family, friends, and neighbors.  Traditions are an extremely important part of our culture, and knowing the story behind the traditions, and passing those stories along to the younger generations, is a duty that we each have.  These traditions, and the stories behind them, fuel my deep love and respect for the American Southwest, and the peoples and cultures who live here.

From The Dancing Rabbit Gallery, we wish each of you a healthy, happy, and very blessed Christmas!

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