(This story originally appeared in a Facebook Note on December 24, 2012.)
Luminarias are a New Mexican Christmas Eve tradition with religious origins. (Scroll down to learn more.)
They are also one of my favorite family holiday traditions.
But… in the cemetery? Let me explain.
Here’s how it happened.
Mom died in May 2001. She lived in Boise, Idaho at the time, 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 was destined 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.
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 made them — by folding the tops of paper sacks down for stability and adding a layer of sand to the bottom of each one to support a votive candle — growing up in Boise where no one else knew what they were. I even made them as an adult at my own house in California some years. I promised the cemetery that we’d come back the next day and clean them up.
Everybody does it?
Sunset replied, “Sure! Everybody does it. And don’t worry about cleaning up, we’ll do that 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!
Sure enough… Everybody does it! Best secret luminaria display in town. Even people who have lived here all their lives don’t know about it. 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 in the cemetery every little cluster of luminarias is assembled and placed there by a different group of loving hands. Families.
But wait, there’s more!
One year after I had moved to Albuquerque myself, 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 or hot apple cider), share a few memories, and drive around (and thru) both cemeteries.
A little history: Holiday Traditions: Luminarias
A little more history, including an Albuquerque-Santa Fe rivalry: Luminarias or Farolitos?
A 2015 blog post 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 that, “Everybody does it.” Great minds…!
What’s your favorite winter holiday tradition?
Please share with us in the comments below!
Copyright 2012-2021 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life and Beyond
Author — What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy
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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!
Two years later, my heart is warmed to revisit your family tradition again this year. And now I know not to incur your wrath by confusing this tradition with farolitos. 😉
I’m nervous enough around fire that, outside of lighting candles for Hanukkah, I tend to steer clear of flames altogether. I’d be afraid of not putting in enough sand and catching the grass on fire, or setting the bag aflame! But like many traditions of other faiths, cultures, and families, I’m delighted to be an observer. Thanks again for sharing this post with us.
What a beautiful idea. I have never heard of this but I love candles and the feeling that they invoke when lit at night.
Now you know! There’s something about fire and light that makes a cold, dark winter’s night seem magical!
What a beautiful idea to put luminarias around your family’s graves! I love that it’s a tradition shared by many and how your family partakes in it with hot beverages, remembrances, and all.
I learned about luminarias from our neighbor. I think she used to live out west. We’re in New York now. Every Christmas and New Year’s Eve, she sets them out around the front of her property. I love the glow they create and look forward to seeing them each year. One year it rained heavily, so they skipped doing it that time, and I missed seeing the beautiful glow.
Yes, there have been times where the weather was bad enough for us to skip it, too. A little rain or snow, OK. A slight breeze, OK. But not heavy rain or strong wind!
I love this idea! What a lovely way to honor people who have passed. And everyone can enjoy the luminaries.
My favorite winter holiday tradition is visiting the local Longwood Gardens in Kenneth Square, PA, for their special outdoor lighting event throughout the garden. We visited last Friday with family who met us there. It was so much fun. We spent a few hours walking around the gardens and seeing the fire and ice theme lights. What a magical night!
There’s something about fire and light that makes a cold, dark winter’s night seem magical!
Well that is just so interesting! Who knew?
We actually do luminaries in our town as well. Typically it is a charity who sells the “kits.” For a small fee, you get the materials for 10 luminaries, which typically have 10 paper bags, 10 candles, and now 10 plastic containers you fill with water to keep the bags from flying away. Then we all put them out on the same night. This used to be done around Christmas, but this year it was in October. It’s wonderful at any time of year!
It IS wonderful wherever, whenever, and I saw your Facebook post about your event! But did you know the origin of luminarias? (Yes, I know non-Southwest people call them luminaries.) Part of me wants to protest their commercial use (i.e. the electric ones that are left up on commercial buildings all season), and their non-Christmas-Eve-only use. But then, I’m not part of the Hispanic culture that started the religious Southwest tradition, and my family took it to Idaho and California with us, so we really can’t complain! (I added one more link, from Wikipedia, which acknowledges both the origins and modern-day uses.)