Every holiday tradition helps us create memories we can enjoy for many years. Luminarias are a popular holiday tradition in Mexico and across the southwest part of the US. We don't see them as often in the northeast because we spend less time outdoors. My memories are from holidays spent in Arizona (my father retired outside of Phoenix) when we went out walking most evenings to enjoy the lights, some Christmas caroling and connecting with friends and neighbors.
When hearing about the luminaries (luminarias) for Newtown on Christmas eve, this felt like something special, a way for people around the world to join together to honor those lost. What's also special is the way we're turning something very sad into something wonderful, as people come together in a positive way.
It is my hope that we're creating a new holiday tradition, one that brings neighbors together to build stronger, more connected communities. With that hope, we share the history of luminarias as a holiday tradition.
History of Luminarias, a Christmas Holiday Tradition
Luminarias first appeared in history around the 16th century. They were used to guide people to midnight mass on the last night of Las Posadas (Spanish word meaning lodging or inn). Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration which began in Spain, although it's now a holiday tradition celebrated primarily in Mexico and the southwest part of the US.
The 9 days represent the 9 months of pregnancy and the last night represents Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem. The original lights were bonfires and today's family traditions continue as holiday lights on rooftops, walls, sidewalks and driveways of individual homes, to guide travelers (our guests) to their destination.
Luminarias a Southwest Holiday Tradition
The tradition extends beyond the luminarias. According to Wikipedia, there is a Las Posadas procession led by someone carrying a candle and they stop at each house where someone living there responds by singing a song to recognize Mary and Joseph. This sounds very similar to another family tradition, Christmas caroling around your neighborhood to share your holiday spirit, and sometimes you get a cup of hot chocolate.
There are many variations of this holiday tradition — people may play a part, like an expectant mother riding a real donkey, children may carry poinsettias, musicians may be part of the procession and Christmas carols will be sung. In some homes and towns, the holiday tradition has the procession leading to a star-shaped pinata with fruit and candy hidden inside.
The most common type of luminarias (also called farolitos, the Spanish word for little lanterns) are brown paper bags filled with sand for stability and a tealight candle. As luminarias have gained popularity as a holiday tradition, more products have made it to market and they've expanded beyond Christmas — you can also get bags for Halloween, July 4th and almost any outdoor event.
You can make your own luminarias by buying lunch bags, tealights and sand (kitty little also recommended) at your local grocery store. Others make luminarias by punching holes in used metal cans, i.e. soup or vegetable size cans work well. You can also search for your favorite colors, cut-out bags and more choices than you can imagine online. For example, LumaBase.com offers many colors and designs, in flame-resistant bags or plastic luminarias. If you're not comfortable using real candles, there are electric and battery operated lights and for more ideas on how to use luminaries, visit our Pinterest board.
Remember the holidays are about creating memories. While it's fun to carry on the holiday traditions you grew up with, it's also fun to add a new holiday tradition to your family's list each year. We hope you consider adding lumiarias to remember loved ones no longer with us, and help us build stronger, connected communities around the world.
Will luminarias become a new holiday tradition for you?