At a previous congregation, my family had a tradition of creating pathways of luminaria on our church’s sidewalks and stonewalls for Christmas Eve. We began the tradition after my grandmother died, knowing how much she loved Christmas. In subsequent years, youth in the parish also helped us out.
A luminaria or farolito is a small paper lantern. These are especially popular in New Mexico and some neighboring states. Typically arranged in rows using brown paper bags (often with cut out designs) they create large and elaborate displays. The hope among Roman Catholics is that the lights will guide the spirit of the Christ child to one’s home. Some traditions decorate the bags or use them to remember those who have died. Another form of luminaria is a small torch or large candle carried by the leader of the procession of Las Posadas, a nine-day holiday running December 16-24.
The week before Christmas we would gather in the undercroft (basement) of the church and assemble the luminaria. Creating an assembly line, one of us would open white lunch-size paper bags, placing them on large trays. Another person would use a paper cup to dump about two inches of sand in the bag, followed by another person placing a white votive candle (one that would burn for eight hours) in the sand.
We would return around dusk on December 24th and lay them out along the sidewalks and walls surrounding the church. Some years we had hundreds, other years we simply lined the walks up to the entrance. Once they were in place, a long taper was used to light each candle, which was often tricky if it was windy or especially cold. They would then burn throughout the night, being extinguished as the candle melted into the sand. Every now and then the wind might cause a bag to tip and catch on fire, but as long as the bag was placed away from anything flammable, it did no damage.
It was always a warm and encouraging sight when we returned to church for the late night service, being welcomed by the lights as we entered to celebrate the birth of the Light into the world.
Here's how you can have luminarias as your church or home:
- Open a brown or white paper lunch bag and fold down the top inch to create a lip at the top of the bag.
- Put enough sand or dirt in the bottom of the bag to keep a votive candle upright, about 3 inches deep.
- Place a votive candle in the bottom center of each bag. The candle should be about 3 inches in height so that it can burn through most of the night. If you don’t want them to burn long, use tea lights.
- To make an entire display of paper bag luminarias, decide where to put your line of lights. Pathways, walls and fences work well to show off your display.
- Once you have decided where to put your display, estimate enough bags to put a paper bag lantern every 15-24 inches.
- Take the filled bags you have made and place them every 15-24 inches along your chosen driveways, pathways and walls around your home.
- At dusk, use a fireplace starting lighter (long nosed) to start the candles. Push the button once the lighter is inside the bag.