Santa Fe is the most charming city over the holidays. A dusting of snow, the imaginative display of Christmas lights and, of course, farolitos dotting the rooftops make Santa Fe unique. This Sunday, I revisit the topic of those magical paper lunch bags illuminating the city different.
For our summer wedding back east, we lined the walkways with farolitos and filled others with favors as a nod to our hometown for our guests to take home.
Nothing says Navidad or Christmas in Santa Fe like farolitos. Thousands of these brown paper sacks, each with an inch or so of sand and a small lighted candle in the bottom (or their electric/plastic counterparts), line streets, roofs and walkways during the holiday season.
The tradition has a long history in New Mexico, steeped in religious and cultural significance. Perhaps you were one of the lucky Santa Feans — or visitors — to experience the Canyon Road Farolito Walk at dusk Dec. 24.
Farolito means “little lantern,” and you may be surprised to know that this Northern New Mexico custom originated far across the Pacific Ocean. Centuries ago, Spain colonized the Philippine Islands, later a U.S. territory and now a sovereign nation. Chinese culture pervaded the islands, and that included the widespread use of Chinese paper lanterns, the type that we still see today.
Filipino Catholics celebrated their tropical Christmas with these lanterns, and the custom traveled east to Spanish-speaking South America, Mexico and on to Northern New Mexico.
Just after the Civil War, inventors Francis Wolle and Margaret Knight created and patented the machine that produced the flat-bottomed paper bag. Its use spread quickly across the continent, and New Mexicans found it a quick and ideal way to make farolitos.
Although electric farolitos are widely available, purists prefer natural flickering candles, which have to be made just right, with an open top so the heat goes up without catching the paper bag on fire. When the candle finally burns out, the sand snuffs it safely.
Our neighbors south of La Bajada call the little faroles “luminarias,” which means light, or illumination.
In Santa Fe, however, luminaria is the name of a small, square campfire.
It’s believed that these small fires served as beacons to guide the Holy Family on their journey to Bethlehem.
May the charm and history of Santa Fe and the twinkling of farolitos bring you warmth and peace this holiday.
Bizia Greene owns the Etiquette School of Santa Fe. Share your comments and conundrums at firstname.lastname@example.org or 988-2070.