Holiday luminaries, or luminarias, are sand-filled paper bags with a votive candle or battery-operated tea light set inside. Luminarias line the streets and rooftops in the Southwest United States and throughout Mexico and Latin America during the nine days before Christmas, often through January 6, the Feast of the Three Kings. The lights show the way to the Inn for Mary and Joseph during Las Posadas. Holiday luminarias are also called farolitos, which means little lanterns.
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According to the Albuquerque, New Mexico Convention and Visitors' Bureau, "Luminarias have not always been made out of paper bags, the early versions were actually small bonfires of crisscrossed piñon branches which were built in 3-foot-high squares." The bonfires were lit to guide people to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and their difficulty finding lodging when they arrived. Children carry farolitos from house to house, accompanying "Mary" and "Joseph." They knock on doors, sing a song begging for food and shelter, and are turned away. At the last house of the evening, which is designated as La Posada, or the resting place, the children (and adults) are invited inside and served holiday tamales, biscochitos, posole and chili stews.
Holiday luminaries, or farolitos, can be made from small paper bags. Use white bakery bags for the most dramatic effect. The paper allows the glow of the candle inside to show. Colored bags are available in grocery stores, close to the plain brown paper lunch bags in the household products aisle. Fold the top two or three inches of the bag down. If desired, cut a Christmas tree, star, holly leaf or other Christmas shape into the side of the bag. This creates an interesting effect as the candle flickers inside. Fill the bag halfway with sand, then push the candle down into the sand about an inch. The sand keeps the bag from being blown over, and prevents the melting candle wax from accidentally setting the bag on fire.
The festival of Las Posadas originated when Catholic missionaries introduced the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus to the native people of Mexico and and Latin America. Because wood is often scarce in the Southwest, the practice of lighting signal bonfires was not sustainable. When Chinese immigrants brought their beautiful paper lanterns with them, locals began using them instead of lighting bonfires. The lanterns were expensive and the paper to make them was scarce, so people began using plain paper bags instead.
Cities such as Albuquerque, New Mexico have become famous for their holiday luminary displays. Neighborhoods and charities all over the country use the sale of holiday luminaria supplies as a fundraiser, often netting several thousand dollars a season. Displays of holiday luminarias several million dollars from tourism to many Southwest towns. This money is a vital resource for these communities.
Cleanup and Recycling
Unlike jack-o-lanterns at Halloween, there is little cleanup with luminarias. Remove the spent candle, which can sometimes be remelted and molded again. Pour the sand into a covered container with a tight lid to keep cats and other animals from fouling it between seasons. Fold the paper bags and store them if they are in good shape. If they are tattered or scorched they can be shredded and added to your home compost pile.