A luminaria (or farolito) is a small paper lantern - commonly a candle set in some sand inside a paper bag - used for decoration in the southwest United States on holidays - commonly Christmas time and especially on Christmas Eve. The name of the decoration is the subject of a long-running item of contention among some New Mexicans. In general, farolito is the preferred term in northern New Mexico, while the decorations are often referred to as luminarias in the southern part of the state; The central part around Albuquerque is mixed, leaning toward "luminaria." In Spanish, the word farolito translates as "little lantern," while luminaria means "festival light". Historically, luminaria referred not to a paper lantern but to a small festival or vigil bonfire; however, this distinction is not commonly made outside of northern New Mexico. New Mexico traditionalists insist that the use of luminaria to mean a paper lantern is not proper. Farolitos may be referred to as "luminarias" by some, but on Christmas Eve, when the farolitos are lit in Santa Fe, luminarias (posada vigil fires) are burning in the small mountain villages of Northern New Mexico. Luminaria bonfires made of square, stacked piñon and juniper wood can often can be seen in towns and pueblos across northern New Mexico. In the mountain villages and by the roadways, they are built by local residents to welcome visitors and to commemorate holiday activities.
Traditional Christmas Eve luminarias are said to originate from Spaniard merchants. They were impressed with the paper lanterns from the Chinese culture and decided to make their own version when they returned to New Spain; particularly during the Christmas season. These are typically arranged in rows to 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.
Santa Fe, where these photos were taken, and Old Town Albuquerque, are well known for their impressive Christmas Eve farolito displays. Farolito displays are common throughout New Mexico, and most communities in New Mexico have farolitos in prominent areas such as major streets or parks. Residents often line their yards, fences, sidewalks, and roofs with farolitos. Similar traditions can now also be found in many other parts of the nation.