Luminarias light up adobe wall in New Mexico. Credit: Photo Courtesy Leeanna Torres.


Throughout much of New Mexico, luminarias are visually recognized as the symbol of the Christmas season.

PHOTO CAPTION: Luminarias light up an adobe wall in New Mexico. Photo Courtesy Leeanna Torres.


How many candles come in a pack? How many paper sacks will accompany each pack of lights? How many to get? And will it be enough? These are the decisions before me, in the aisle of the store, weeks before Christmas.


You know the ones, small thin brown paper sacks, the ones Mama used to pack your lunch in as a kid? And small tea-light candles, you know the ones, off-white or sometimes yellow, like those Nana used to light each night before sitting down to whisper her rosary. The store bustles with holiday shoppers, each gathering items they just can’t live without. And my cart is full of nothing but this — brown paper bags and candles.

In any place other than New Mexico, my gathering of goods might seem strange or out of place. The woman in line ahead of me glances back at my cart. A subtle smile appears, and she nods her head. “Getting ready huh?” she asks. I notice her purse, a lovely leather hanging from her shoulder. “Heck yeah,” I reply, and nothing else needs to be said. She knows exactly what my loot is for. She knows where I’m headed with my little brown paper bags and candles.

Finally at the checkout, the cashier does not flinch as I hoist my pile of candles and paper sacks, a pile of clumsy clutter on her counter; this is Nuevo Mexico, and mine an ordinary sight at Christmas time.

Throughout much of New Mexico, luminarias are visually recognized as the symbol of the Christmas season. They are as simple as much as they are defining and unique – a paper bag, a few inches of sand inside, and a single stout candle inside the bag. What results is a small lantern of sorts, a symbol of welcoming the Divine into our physical world.

Are they luminarias or are they farolitos? This question is too hard to handle, too hot to ask depending on your physical location within New Mexico itself – south, central, or north. The answer will also depend on who taught you about this tradition. Was it your Pápa or your Tío, your Auntie or your cousin? Or was it simply the bigger fund-raising event put on by bigger cities like Albuquerque or Santa Fe? I know them as luminarias, simple as that.

Now where will I get the sand? Easy, a sacred place of course. And who will help me fold the bags? Easy, my sobrinos (nephew and niece).

Luminaria – such a lovely word, and I say it out loud, again and again, whispered to myself as I drive home on Highway 47. Something in me is strangely and surprisingly happy, pleased, joyous in the smallest sense possible. A rowdy Dodge diesel pickup passes me, loud as though annoyed, and I let it pass. Again, what is this crumb of contentment in my corazón? People are busy shopping and preparing for the oncoming holidays, and I’m strangely content knowing all I want to do is fold up little brown bags, pour in poquito sand, and put a candle in.

I will make, and put up, luminarias with my niece Concí and nephew Eppy. Then we will assemble them around the house, along the adobe walls, out along the driveway.

I think too about this idea of preparation, these small actions and intent that go along with so many of our traditional NM celebrations. Of course there are larger family gatherings, dinners, Masses, all the varuio (commotion) of the holidays, but something in me is deeply content with my smaller tradition of little brown paper bags and candles.

Luminarias. A lovely word, all five syllables traveling out of my voice into the space of the world where the Spirit lingers. Luminaria, a lovely word, but a word not commonly spoken. Instead, it’s only heard during Advent and Christmas time. Winter days. Thus, the word itself grounds me in season, in time.

My dear friend Luke used to describe the luminaria at his Pueblo — Sandia — on Christmas Eve. He’d describe a large pile of wood — cottonwood — gathered from the nearby bosque, all of it laid and placed outside, near the large double doors of the Pueblo church. I imagine him there, as if he were still alive today, standing with his daughters before the Christmas Eve flames, all three of their bodies close enough to feel the fire’s warmth, together.

As Conci (my niece) tries folding the edges of the paper bag, her hands are clumsy but eager, excited and wildly unapologetic even as some of the edges tear. She does not struggle. Instead, she watches me folding my own bag, her eyes darting back and forth between my hands and hers. She looks determined rather than relaxed, and I wonder how to explain to her what we are doing is a step towards the sacred. The top of my small paper bag is folded twice down, straight and taut, like a cuff on the rim.

How do I describe to my niece that this is the beginning of an offering?

And why do stores sell small lunch-size paper bags by the case-full in the Southwest just before the Christmas holiday?

What is all of this about, and how to begin to explain?

There is no way to explain. Instead, what says it all is the sight of these simple paper lanterns, flickering across the twilight of Christmas Eve. And they’ll flicker into the night, until at last the candle is no more. All explanation is there, thru the preparation and witnessing of these lights themselves, our need for the Divine as clear as flame, as honest as a little brown bag.

Photo of a single luminaria glowing at night
Una luminaria en el camino. Photo by Leeanna Torres
Portrait of Leeanna Torres, outdoors
Author and contributor, Leeanna Torres.





Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post/article does not necessarily represent those of the New Mexico Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.




L.T. Torres is a native daughter of the American Southwest, with deep Indo-Hispanic roots in New Mexico. She has worked as an environmental professional throughout the West since 2001. Her creative non-fiction work has been published in Blue Mesa Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and is forthcoming in an anthology by Torrey House Press (2021).