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The Spirit of the Farolitos


I have to laugh as I pour the sand into the empty lunch bags. How can it be that from such simple supplies – lunch bags, sand and a small candle – have come my favorite holiday tradition? Once the right amount of sand is in each bag, I clear out a spot to seat the candle. It took a while to find the right candles. Ones that would burn long enough to last until the required midnight hour, yet not so big as to set the bags aflame and destroy the holiday effect of the flickering light in the brown paper.

The first year we lived in Arizona, wanting to indulge in this old southwest holiday decoration, I positioned them atop the wall that surrounds our house. Their peaceful glow remained until my children arrived late into the night on Christmas Eve.

That tradition has remained for us, and this year I do the same, carefully positioning each farolito, or luminara as they are sometimes known, along the top of the wall. I then take some extra ones and outline the path leading from the front porch to the driveway.

“If you keep this up the entire house will be surrounded,” teases my husband as he checks out the effect.

“Good,” I reply. “I would love that.”

And, the fact is, I would. One of the more wondrous memories for me was the year when we decided to spend Christmas in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

If there is ever magic on the earth, it has to be Christmas Eve in Santa Fe. The farolitos, which are laboriously assembled by the hundreds, are carefully placed in rows on walls, sidewalks and rooftops throughout the old parts of the city. If you are fortunate, the night will be mild with light snow, the scent of burning pinion wood creating a soft and serene evening. As you cross the old Plaza you just might feel the presence of old spirits, those before us, who walked this path on their way to hear a joyous choir within the mysterious wonder of the Loretto Chapel. The choir loft stairway within the chapel is an engineering miracle, built by the hands of an unknown gentle carpenter.

In contrast to the Plaza, Canyon Road is alive with people and celebration. Some dressed as Christmas characters; Santa, Mrs. Claus, elves or those beloved characters of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. The galleries and restaurants open their doors and spread out onto the patios and sidewalks, serving hot drinks around small bonfires of fragrant pinion wood. Caroling spontaneously happens, inviting all to join in on the words and mood. Festive and alive is the mood on Canyon Road!  Offering to all a celebration of birth; the gift of joy and song to a restless world. At the end of the road, all becomes quiet again with the only light in the evening darkness emanating from tens of thousands of farolitos dancing along the top of the pueblo-styled homes.

In earlier times, farolitos were used to light the path so people could find their way to midnight mass on Christmas Eve throughout New Mexico. Now, here on this celebrated evening in Arizona, perhaps my small lights will also offer some illumination. Not only for the two people I wait for tonight, but for the so many people on our earth who long for hope and the guidance of a peaceful light.

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