Luminarias at the Cemetery

Internet photo of the luminarias at the  cemetery next door (Mt. Calvary).

(This story was originally posted in a Facebook Note on December 24, 2012.)

Luminarias are one of my favorite family holiday traditions. It comes from my mom’s having grown up (from the age of 10) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But… in the cemetery? Let me explain.

Here’s how it happened.

Mom died in May 2001. She lived in Boise, Idaho but died in New York, on Long Island (long story). The family gathered on Long Island to say goodbye, and again for Thanksgiving in Boise to help my aunt deal with Mom’s stuff. But Mom wanted to be buried in the family plot in Albuquerque, where she had grown up and where her parents were buried. Our family — at the time we were living in California, Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico and New York — wouldn’t be getting together again until Christmas the next year, when we arranged for the burial of her ashes and a memorial service on Christmas Eve.

I had the best idea.

Sunset at Sunset Memorial

I had the best idea, one that I thought she would love, too! I asked Sunset Memorial if they could possibly see their way clear to let us come back that night and put luminarias around her gravesite. She taught us to love luminarias as children, and we had them in Boise where no one else knew what they were. I even had them as an adult at my own house in California sometimes. I promised to come back the next day and clean them up.

Everybody does it?

Sunset replied, “Sure. Everybody does it. And don’t worry, we’ll clean up for you.” What? Huh? What do you mean, “Everybody does it?” Who does it? Really? But I just thought of it myself! And I thought I was being so-o-o clever!

Setting up luminarias around our family gravesites.

Sure enough… Everybody does it! Best luminaria display in town that no one else knows about. Even people who have lived here all their lives don’t know. How would they, if had never occurred to them to visit the cemetery on Christmas Eve after dark? To me it’s far more special than the beautiful, yet commercially installed, displays in public places like Old Town, because every little cluster of luminarias is assembled and placed there by a different group of loving hands.

Merry Christmas, Mom!

But wait, there’s more!

Several years later, after I had moved to Albuquerque, we happened to be driving on the overpass from I-25 N to I-40 W on Christmas Eve after dark. Looking down on the right (north) I saw the beautiful luminarias at Sunset Memorial, including the ones we had set up earlier that evening. Then, looking down on the left (south) we saw ANOTHER cemetery (Mt Calvary) with TEN TIMES as many luminarias! So now every year we go set out luminarias around our loved ones’ graves (mom, grandma, grandpa, great-grandpa), make a toast (hot buttered rum and/or hot apple cider), share a few memories, and drive around (and thru) both cemeteries.

Luminarias at my house in Albuquerque

2019 Updates

A little history: Holiday Traditions: Luminarias

A little more history: Luminarias or Farolitos?

Look, I just found this 2015 blog by a friend, Gail Rubin:  Christmas Luminarias in Cemeteries

And here’s a 2017 Albuquerque Journal article:  Lighting up memories at Mount Calvary Cemetery 

But in 2002 I had no idea. Great minds…




What is your favorite winter holiday tradition?

Please share with us in the comments below!

Copyright 2019 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
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  1. Perhaps it’s because I don’t celebrate Christmas, or perhaps (as you noted) it’s particularly regional, but I wasn’t familiar with luminaria at all. I had to look it up to realize it wasn’t just a lighting/lantern display but a Christmas-specific one. (And apparently it also goes by the name farolito?) How beautiful!

    • It’s true; a full examination of luminarias would include how to make them, plus a bit more history (I did add one more link — “Luminarias or Farolitos?”). It would include the evolution from actual bonfires lighting the way on Christmas Eve — for reenactments, including Mary on a donkey, known as Las Posadas, of the Holy Family’s procession from inn to inn, ending at the stable where Jesus was born — to paper sacks anchored with sand & using votive candles to light the way symbolically (still, Christmas Eve only, with the exception of the Old Town Holiday Stroll), to electric luminarias that commercial buildings leave up for a solid month these days. As for farolitos vs. luminarias, that is like the difference between bonfire, light, lamp and lantern. And the northern New Mexicans who call them farolitos are just wrong, that’s all. Kidding. What’s REALLY wrong, though, is that I’ve seen “luminaries” for sale in catalogs for other holidays such as Halloween. Pretty, and who’s to say one can’t put sand in a paper bag with any design at all and light it with a candle? Still….ugh!

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