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The History of Luminarias (Luminaries)

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Although many people associate “luminarias” with the holiday lighting of candles placed in small, brown, sand-filled bags, luminarias first appear historically around the 16th century, as a Spanish tradition of lighting bonfires along the roads and churchyards to guide people to Midnight Mass on the final night of Las Posadas.

The night of Las Posadas (Spanish word meaning lodging or inn) is a festive celebration that was first introduced to the indigenous people of Mexico by European missionaries, and is a reenactment of the story of Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem. The tradition continued into modern times—with the decoration of rooftops, walls, sidewalks and driveways of individual homes—as a way of guiding travelers to their destination.

The candlelit brown paper bags are also called "farolitos," the Spanish word for little lanterns. In the early 19th century, U.S. settlers on the Santa Fe trail brought Chinese paper lanterns to hang from their portals and light their entranceways. They were beautiful but expensive, and eventually, the paper bag version became the tradition.

Today, luminarias and farolitos have become an American holiday tradition and a southwestern tradition of welcome. As well as the traditional paper bags with candles, modern day versions also include the electric luminarias or farolitos.

Some people in the Southwest call the paper bag lanterns luminarias, while others insist the correct term is farolitos since "luminarias" were the bonfires lining the roads. Whatever you choose to call them, honor the history of luminarias by setting some out this Christmas and adding a new tradition to your holidays regardless of where you live.

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How to make your own candle luminarias:
1) Turn down the top 1" of brown or white paper lunch bags to make a sturdy rim.
2) Place about 1" of sand or cat litter in the bottom of the bag.
3) Place a votive candle in the center of the bag.
4) Place luminarias on sidewalk and light candles.

Traditional luminarias (votive candles in paper bags) in Old Town Albuquerque, NM.







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