Since the late Margaret Downey first created the Festival of Lights in 1987, luminarias have lit the pathways to many local homes and businesses throughout the holiday seasons.
Luminarias, or “little lights” in Spanish, have been used as Christmas lanterns in villages along the Rio Grande for more than 300 years. The tradition first spread to the southwestern United States, and is now popular from coast to coast.
These little lights dignify festivity, burning especially at Christmas along roads and on rooftops to light the way for the Christ Child, according to tradition.
In Indian and Hispanic villages, luminarias are lit for any fiesta, and in cities and suburbs, they are frequently used to designate a home where a party is being held.
The first luminarias were simply small bonfires, until colored wrapping paper from the Orient was used to make the first small lanterns with candles inside. Instead of hanging the fragile lanterns, they were placed on the ground, patios, rooftops and along pathways.
When Yankee traders brought brown paper sacks down the Santa Fe Trail 160-plus years ago, luminarias became acessible to all.
The brown paper bag luminarias were used in the early years of the festival, but fell out of use because of the high probability of rain to spoil all the hard work of setting out the paper bags and candles.
Some homes and businesses have replaced the old-fashioned candle-in-a-bag kind with electric luminarias.