(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
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