Luminaria (vigil fire)

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A luminaria (rarely vigil fire)[1] is a traditional small bonfire typically used during Las Posadas, a 9-day celebration culminating on Christmas Eve (la Nochebuena). The luminaria is widely used in Santa Fe, New Mexico.[2][3] Luminaria is a loanword from Spanish that entered English in New Mexico.[1]


In New Mexico tradition, the luminaria is constructed of piñon pine branches stacked to form a cube similar in style to a log fence or log cabin.[4] The piñon is used because it is abundant and the resin has a distinct fragrance that is very pleasing. To many people in New Mexico this is the fragrance of Christmas. The branches are laid to form a box so that the fire will cast the most light and heat with the least flame.


The luminaria is placed at the entrance to the home or in the middle of a courtyard. In New Mexico many traditional Spanish Colonial homes have a central open courtyard with a large entrance gate; the luminaria is placed at the gate. In traditional Pueblo villages, where the entrances to homes are rooftops, the luminaria may be placed on a rooftop.[4]

For some people the tradition includes lighting a new luminaria each night of Las Posadas (nine nights in all), and rebuilding and lighting those from the previous nights. Thus, on the first night there is a single luminaria, and on the ninth night there are nine, all in a line leading to the gate.[4]

In some other traditional communities in New Mexico a single large luminaria is ignited on Christmas Eve after the evening meal, on a mountain lookout where the light may be visible to the entire community.[5]

Rarely, use of the luminaria begins even earlier, on December 12 after the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is said to be related to Native American (Pueblo) beliefs.[6]


The early 16th century missionary historian Toribio de Benavente Motolinia described luminarias in use by Native Americans in Colonial Mexico, to illuminate midnight church services in outdoor chapels, and on their rooftops on Christmas Eve.[7]

Modern variations[edit]

A luminaria may be constructed in a small brazier, so that the heat does not damage pavement or stonework, and to reduce the risk of the fire spreading or escaping. The luminaria typically is not closely attended, but is expected to be seen and admired by passers by.

In some communities where the luminaria is used, it is accompanied by numerous smaller farolitos: paper lanterns consisting of a brown paper bag containing sand and a candle. In contrast, some communities in New Mexico and elsewhere use only the farolitos. In these latter communities generally the farolitos are called luminarias.[1][8] Generally, luminaria are used in Santa Fe and northern New Mexico,[9] with or without farolitos; and farolitos alone are used in Albuquerque and southern New Mexico,[10] and have spread to other parts of the United States.[11] Some authors claim the farolito in New Mexico is an adaptation of Chinese paper lanterns brought to New Mexico via the Philippines and Mexico.[7][11] Others claim the farolito and the paper bag itself came to New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail.[citation needed] There is general agreement that the farolito is a substitute for the luminaria.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Frederic Gomes Cassidy, Joan Houston Hall, ed. (1985). Dictionary of American Regional English. 3: I-O. Harvard University Press. pp. 454–455. ISBN 0-674-20519-7.
  2. ^ Metcalf, Allan A. (2000). How we talk: American regional English today. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 128–130. ISBN 0-618-04362-4.
  3. ^ Leach, Nicky; Mahler, Richard (2005). Insiders' Guide to Santa Fe (4 ed.). Globe Pequot. pp. 234–236. ISBN 0-7627-3690-9.
  4. ^ a b c Montaño, Mary Caroline (2001). Tradiciones nuevomexicanas: Hispano arts and culture of New Mexico. University of New Mexico Press. p. 82. ISBN 0-8263-2137-2.
  5. ^ Buxó Rey, María Jesús (1997), "La imaginación del fuego en Nuevo México: Luces y humos", in José Antonio González Alcantud, María Jesús Buxó Rey, El fuego. Mitos, ritos y realidades, Autores, textos y temas de antropologíia (in Spanish), 31, Anthropos Editorial, pp. 126–130, ISBN 84-7658-503-9
  6. ^ Mellott, David M. (2009). I Was and I Am Dust: Penitente Practices as a Way of Knowing. Virgil Michel Series. Liturgical Press. p. 151. ISBN 0-8146-6225-0.
  7. ^ a b Ribera Ortega, Pedro (1973). Christmas in old Santa Fe (2 ed.). Sunstone Press. pp. 14–23. ISBN 0-913270-25-3.
  8. ^ Rodriguez, Gloria G. (1999). Criando a nuestros niño: Educando a ninos latinos en un mundo bicultural [Raising our children: Educating latino children in a bicultural world] (in Spanish). Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-684-84126-6.
  9. ^ Nylander Ebinger, Virginia (2008). Aguinaldos. Sunstone Press. p. 110. ISBN 0-86534-689-5.
  10. ^ a b O'Neill, Zora (2007). New Mexico. Moon Handbooks (7 ed.). Avalon Travel. ISBN 1-56691-795-6.
  11. ^ a b Castro, Rafaela (2001). Chicano folklore: a guide to the folktales, traditions, rituals and religious practices of Mexican Americans. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-514639-5.