The Christmas season is such a great time of year to be in New Mexico. The distinctive aroma of pinon wood burning in fireplaces; the outing to the National Forest to cut down our Christmas tree; the tamales and posole; and of course the beauty of the luminarias on Christmas Eve, the dimly glowing candles inserted into paper sacks which festoon the homes and sidewalks, and which sets New Mexico apart from the rest of the country. While the simple decorations have caught on elsewhere, nowhere is it so ubiquitous and traditional. There is always much debate around the state as to whether the proper word for this traditional luminous decoration is luminaria or farolito. Northern New Mexico calls it a farolito, the Spanish for little lantern. Central and Southern areas of the state refer to it as a luminaria, firelight. Use of these little fires for Christmas began early on in New Mexico, in the Pueblos and in Santa Fe, in honor of the birth of Christ and to light the way to church, tradition says to light the way for Mary and Joseph, and so they are lit only on Christmas Eve. Electric luminarias are now available, but the traditional paper sack version is still only used on that one night each year.
We enjoyed the company of my parents and my brother this year for Christmas, a nice change from our usual party of three (with my sister) and a nice opportunity to share the traditions we have enjoyed here through the years.
Christmas Eve is celebrated in Old Town. We always make dinner reservations for one of the great restaurants and then stroll around enjoying the festive glow of the millions of luminarias placed throughout the plaza and the country club neighborhood. This year, dinner was at Seasons, a contemporary American bistro just north of Old Town. Lively and understated, the service and food were fantastic and a great way to kick off the holiday weekend. After the wine and copious amounts of food we really needed the stroll. Unfortunately, it was finger-numbing cold outside and it hit us like an arctic blast as we emerged from the warmth of the restaurant. We wanted our family to partake of the spectacle, though, so we herded them down the crowded streets into the center of the plaza. We took some photos, they “ooohed and aaahed” over the scene of the gazebo and central plaza with thousands of softly glowing paper sacks filled with candles, but then wanted to get out of the frigid wind. So, alas, they didn’t see the really impressive, extravagant display of light in the country club area, but we were none too upset to be able to get home to a warm fire, our twinkling Christmas tree, and hot tea. We had our own luminarias lit and they glowed softly as we arrived, lighting the way in the darkness, just as they have for hundreds of years on this one special night.
copyright 2004 Valerie Schneider