The Annual New Mexico Christmas Debate

Faralitos line the byways, fences and rooftops of historic Santa Fe on Christmas Eve. Thanks to Alexis Strong for this photo.

Our first Christmas as Santa Fe residents, compelled us to take the Christmas Eve walk along Canyon Road. The charming and historic road, now lined with art galleries and some of my favorite places to eat, transformed into a curved trail brightened with faralitos (brown paper bags, partially filled with sand and a small lit candle) and luminarias (a bonfire of pinon, cedar and/or juniper wood). 

Wait! Should that be luminarias (brown paper bags, partially filled with sand and a small lit candle) and faralitos (a bonfire of pinon)?  Depends. Are you a Santa Fean or a Burqueno (meaning a person from Albuquerque)?

New Mexico True writes: 

‘In a December 3, 1590, journal entry, Spanish explorer Gaspar Costaño de Sosa mentioned the small bonfires his cohorts had lit to guide a scout back to camp. Luminarias, he called them, thereby casting the first stone in what’s now a 426-year-old, northern-versus-southern New Mexico debate over the little paper bags that light up our holiday nights. “They’re farolitos,” folks north of La Bajada Hill insist.

“Luminarias,” everyone south says.

The “itos” attached to faro, makes sense to me—beloved little lights. And the perfectly stacked burning pinon, sounds more like something big.  

Even the plastic, electric faralitos (in Santa Fe) that line commercial and private residences have a name—that’s more appropriate from my point of view: electrolitos.

Call this Christmas Eve tradition what you will, the purpose of the path-lined faralitos/luminarias is to light the way for the Holy Family. The faralitos that lined our driveway, lit the way for guests to come inside from the 21 degree chill outside.  A hot alcohol beverage was welcomed by the adults as was the hot chocolate bringing smiles to the under 21 crowd. Perhaps a tamale or two, a bowl of posole doubly hot with green chiles warmer than the broth, and a plate stacked with bicochitos—a Christmas must have cookie in New Mexico, before returning or beginning the Christmas Eve walk between miles-long faralitos. 

The crisp mountain air, incensed with wafts of smoldering pinon and cedar,  showcased a crystal bright night sky. Laughter and conversation intertwined with song around the luminarias — all creating the magic of Christmas Eve in New Mexico. 

From a work-in-progress, “Behind the Turquoise Gate: A California Girl’s New Mexico Memoir”

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