Luminaria Traditions

At night Paper farolito lanterns are lined up on top of an adobe wall. Two small bonfires are burning in the foreground.
Farolito lanterns and luminaria fires.

Photo/Jack Parsons

“As the natural darkness of night sets in, the whole city and suburbs around light up with a blaze of light.” - The Weekly New Mexican, January 2, 1864.

Every December, plazas, churches, homes, and businesses across New Mexico are lit up with luminarias, (or farolitos as they are known in Northern, New Mexico.) In Spanish, luminaria means “illumination” and farolito means "little lantern." These decorative winter holiday lanterns are made with brown paper bags, which are filled partway with sand and a lit tea candle or small votive. Once lit and set, luminarias glow with a unique warmth that is unmatched throughout the year.

Luminarias weren't always contained in brown paper bags, though. Before the square-bottomed paper bag was patented in 1872, small stacks of Piñon bark and dry wood were made, and the small bonfires were lit along roadways. This is where the controversy around the names arises. North of Santa Fe, “farolito” is the name for the paper lantern and “luminaria” is the small stacks of firewood, while south of Santa Fe, New Mexicans call the paper lanterns “luminarias.”

At night, luminarias and bonfires at Picuris Pueblo Church, an adobe building with a low adobe wall.
Bonfires and luminarias decorate Picuris Pueblo Church.

Photo/Picuris Pueblo

The luminaria tradition of the Rio Grande Valley may have originated in 1590 when small bonfires were lit by Gaspar Castano de Sosa’s men to guide a scout back to their camp. Pueblos picked up luminaria traditions during Spanish colonization. Some of those traditions are still practiced today. The Picuris Pueblo has a torchlight precession and perform traditional dances on Christmas Eve. Acoma Pueblo lines the road into the Pueblo with over two thousand luminarias every year. In New Mexican Catholic traditions, luminarias and farolitos were only lit on Christmas Eve to symbolically guide the Holy Family on their journey.

Black and white photo of a parol lantern in the Philippines, 1904.
Parol lanterns used in the Philippines during Simbang Gabi, 1904.


Luminaria traditions have spread to many of the former Spanish territories. The Winter Solstice is the darkest time of year, so lights and lanterns have been incorporated into winter holiday traditions for hundreds of years. Luminaria traditions are often a part of religious ceremonies and celebrations like Simbang Gabi in the Philippines, or Las Posadas and Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Catholic communities across Latin America and Spain. A common thread between these lantern traditions is the influence of Spanish colonization and the Spanish attempt to blend Roman Catholic traditions of Christmas into local cultures and winter traditions.

At night, memorial lanterns line the reflecting pool across from the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
Luminarias used for COVID 19 Memorial in January 2021.

NPS Photo

Luminaria use in the United States is not limited to New Mexico, or exclusively to winter holiday celebrations. On January 19, 2021, President-elect Biden held a memorial ceremony at the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Four hundred luminarias were lit to represent the 400,000 Americans who lost their lives in the first twelve months of the global pandemic. The American Cancer Society uses luminarias to honor people who have died, are currently fighting, or recovered from cancer. They sell memorial luminarias to fundraise for their organization and cancer research.

Two women prepare farolito lanterns along a snowy road. Canyon Road Acequia Madre 1990.
Setting up farolitos on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM. 1990.

Photo/Palace of the Governors Archive

Farolitos are practically synonymous with a New Mexican Christmas. Across the state, neighborhoods coordinate to light their luminarias together and warm the community with their light on long winter nights. Modern conveniences like plastic and electric luminarias have made the festive decoration more accessible, and reusable, for those who wish to start their own luminaria traditions. Although some purists will argue the electric lanterns are no substitute for the warm glow of a real flame, whichever luminaria (or farolito) one chooses is sure to light the night in the darkest days of winter.

Sources and Additional Information:

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail, Old Spanish National Historic Trail, Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Last updated: December 15, 2021