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Submitted by Pam on Wed, 12/17/2008 - 16:37
It wasn't Christmas when I was growing up without a drive around town on Christmas Eve to see the Luminarias. Actually, they are known as Farolitos (little fires) in New Mexico and the word "Luminaria" is reserved for the small bonfires used to light the way for participants in Las Posadas. But since most of the world knows the little bags with candles in them as Luminiarias or Luminaries, I am using that word in this post.
The photo above is of Erickson Farms here in Vancouver, WA. In the Summer, the farm is one of our favorite places to seek out raspberries and blackberries. During the holidays, the Ericksons give a gift to Vancouver residents by putting up this wonderful light show, complete with Luminarias.
Luminarias have been used during the winter holidays in the American Southwest for a long time.
The Desert Botanical Garden in Scottsdale, Arizona carries on this tradition every year during their winter celebration of Las Noches de Las Luminarias. As you can see above, the entire garden is lit with strings of lights and every path is outlined with luminarias. Throughout the Southwestern US, you can see homes, neighborhoods and businesses decorated with lights and Luminarias like the photo above.
Link over to this beautiful image, which shows a gorgeous Luminaria display on the Inn at Loretto in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That will give you some idea of the magic I remember from my childhood Christmas Eve explorations. More images of Luminarias (Farolitos) can be found here and here. Take the time to visit and savor the quiet beauty in these galleries.
I am delighted that people everywhere are using Luminarias as part of their decorations these days. They are the simplest of decorations to make and very inexpensive. Even though I struggle a bit with the WET Pacific Northwest weather these days, I still make the traditional candle-based Luminarias. (You can get electric ones, of course, but it's just not the same!)
LET'S MAKE SOME LUMINARIAS!
You will need:
- Brown paper lunch bags (You can certainly use white and colored bags, I but I prefer the good old fashioned brown paper bags.)
- Clean sand (if you don't have any leftover from Spring planting, small bags of washed sand are usually available in the garden section of home improvement stores. Don't use any sand or dirt that has wood chips or sawdust in it - these are flammable!)
- Votive candles or tealights
How to make them:
Luminarias are usually placed about 12" to 18" apart for best effect. Measure the length of the area you wish to use for display and divide it by either 12" or 18" to determine the number of bags you will need.
Open the bags so they sit flat on their bottoms, as shown above. I usually place my Luminarias on cookie trays, which makes for easy transportation once they are ready to go outside. The big cardboard flats you got last Spring from the garden centers work well too!
Fold the tops of the bags over about 1". This gives the rims a little more stability and helps keep the bags from closing. The fold is a little tricky at first, but it gets easier as you practice.
Pour a little sand into each bag. You don't need a lot - about 1" is plenty. The main reason for the sand is to keep your Luminarias from blowing away if there is a little breeze. (Don't even THINK about lighting Luminarias if it is windy, by the way - that's just not safe.
Place a votive candle or tealight in the sand. I prefer the tealight because the aluminum cup provides an extra margin of safety, and it contains the melted wax so it doesn't run all over the sand and soak through the bag.
Carry your completed Luminarias outside and put them in place. Always be careful to place each Luminaria well away from buildings, outdoor plants, or anything flammable. Then, just as dusk is falling, light each tealight. (I recommend using the long butane lighters we all use to light our grills in Summer.) Be careful not to catch the paper bags on fire!
(Indulge me one last safety warning, too: Never leave your Luminarias unattended, and be sure to blow them all out before you go to bed.)
If you use tealights, then this display is totally green!!! The sand and the bags can be reused next year, and you will end up with a stash of aluminum cups to use for light collars or Espejitos next year!