The Origination of the
Luminary or Farolitas
The first luminaries in North America were bonfires of crisscrossed
pinon boughs arranged in 3-foot high squares. Later luminaries were
small paper lanterns, which were made when colored paper was brought
to this continent from the Orient. Instead of hanging these delicate
lanterns from trees or on wires, they were placed on the ground, on
rooftops and along pathways.
Tradition has it that luminaries lit the way for Mary and Joseph in their search
for lodging in Bethlehem.
Other writers place the tradition back even earlier, linking it to the
Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, when people mark the miracle of the
container of oil that was only meant to last one day but lasted eight.
To this day, Hanukkah, the Festival of the Lights, is celebrated with
a multi-branched candelabrum, with a light for each day.
It's the multiple lights, and their use throughtout history in guiding,
saving and celebrating, that cause some writers to see the Hanukkah
candles as forerunners of luminaries.
Luminaries are also linked through history to the ancient tradition
of communicating, warning and celebrating through linked bonfires.
For instance, the lighting of hundreds of bonfires long the Mississippi
River in Louisiana originated with German and French settlers who migrated
to the state in the 19th century. Not only did the lights guide Mary
and Joseph, they were also meant to guide the Acadian version of Santa,
Pa Pa Noel.
They say that Pa Pa Noel was able to navigate the river through thick
fog to bring presents to the children only because of the chain of fires.
Today in Louisiana, Christmas Eve bonfires guide church-goers travelling
on the water and along the river road to Midnight Mass.
The tradition of luminaries comes from Mexico. It has been celebrated
for many years in New Mexico before spreading to communities throughout
the United States, Canada and Europe.
The Pueblo Indians in New Mexico have long lit small fires outside their
homes to light their way to church on Christmas Eve.
They learned the custom from Spanish settlers who introduced farolitos,
or little lanterns, in the sixteenth century. The spanish settlers burned
small bonfires along the roads and in the churcyards to commemorate
By the 19th century, American settlers brought beautiful Chinese lanterns
to hang from their doorways instead of building bonfires. But the lanterns
were too expensive for many people so they began to make small lanterns
out of paper sacks to save money.
The timing of the Fiesta de Las Luminaries, or the lighting of the way
for the Holy Family, varies from community to community. Some concentrate
on Christmas Eve, others enjoy their displays throughtout December.
In Europe, many people postpone their use of luminaries until just before
January 6, the Festival of the Three Kings. Their luminaries light the
wise men as they bring gifts to the Christ Child. In many European countries,
Three Kings is the part of the festival in which gifts are given and
feasting takes place. Christmas itself remains primarily a religious
In recent years, the use of luminaries has expanded so that they're
used throughout the year at parties, weddings, religious ceremonies
and charitable events. And they're used both indoors and outdoors. Luminaries
enhance any occasion in which multiple lights will guide or celebrate
Patricia Miller, Research Journalist