So, Is it 'Luminarias' or 'Farolitos'?

Posted: Apr 22 2014

-By Barbara Alvarez

This is actually a topic of strong opinion in my family. I’m originally from Las Cruces, which is 45 minutes north of the New Mexico-Texas border. When I was married, my family and I lived in Espanola, which is in northern New Mexico. About 25 minutes northeast of Santa Fe.

Our two (now grown) sons learned early about the “luminarias versus farolitos” argument – and to this day, both of them argue strongly that the proper term is ... well, I think I’ll do that “Big Reveal” at the end of this article.

Officially, this is a small paper bag with sand in the bottom to weigh down the bag. In the sand, a votive candle is set and lit to welcome the Christ child at His birth.

In New Mexico, these homey little lights are set along driveways and sidewalks and lit just as it grows dark. If you’ve never seen a luminaria – or farolito, you just have not lived! When it is completely dark, it is beautiful! Imagine small, brown paper sacks with a gentle light inside, glowing and flickering until the candle burns itself out. The sand, along with weighing the bag down, provides a bit of protection and helps to snuff the last of the flame out.

Here’s where a bit of the controversy enters. Here in New Mexico, “luminaria” also means “Christmas bonfire.” Now, when you think of the word “bonfire,” you have to admit, you probably think of a large, roaring fire, right? So, now do you see where just a bit of the controversy began?

Now, let’s look at what “farolito” means.

It’s basically another word for luminaria. I remember that, as my older son went to college, he’d ask a female friend to join him as they walked along the darkened roads of New Mexico State University when the luminarias/farolitos had been lit. This event is called “Noche de Luminarias,” with these little paper bags decorating the campus, beginning at one of the dormitories, looping around the duck pond, continuing along the International mall, then completely encircling the Corbett Center Student Union.

Local businesses get involved, offering trolley rides all along the luminaria-lit route. Las Cruces High School’s band sets up the display. Inside the Corbett Center, those enjoying the sight can indulge in hot cider, hot coffee and cookies.

The Big Reveal
My sons believe that “farolito” means “little light.” That’s probably what the parents of their old friends told them. What we do know is that the tradition of lighting the way of the Lord at His birth is something we love.

For me, it began much earlier. When my sisters and I were kids, my dad would have us fill the bags and he’d set the candles in the sand. We’d set them up surrounding our lawn then, at dusk, he’d light every candle. Sometimes, if we had enough bags, we’d “write” a word in the center of our lawn. One year, one of my sisters suggested, “Hey, let’s do ‘Joy’ on the grass!” She couldn’t understand why we cracked up. Our Catholic church sets up memorial luminarias all around the church on Christmas Eve. This welcomes people coming to the Family Mass, then the Midnight Mass and it is truly beautiful, even though it’s so danged cold!

Okay, time for the Big Reveal...After spending nearly a decade living in Espanola, this marked my sons and they still maintain many of the beliefs they were exposed to. To this day, both Joseph and Travis believe the proper term is...FAROLITOS! (And so do I.)

-Barbara Alvarez
Barbara is a writer for


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