In the dark days of winter, people turn to the light, whatever their traditions. The promise of the light’s return has kept humanity going through countless winters — and each Christmas Eve in Santa Fe, it is light that brings people together in one of our city’s most beloved traditions.
The Canyon Road Farolito Walk will take place again Tuesday night, starting at dusk on and around Canyon Road.
Lining walls, sidewalks and curbs, thousands of lights will shine through paper bags, those farolitos that make a New Mexico Christmas unique. Along the way, there will be bonfires, or luminarias, to illuminate and provide warmth.
The natural glow brings back the sense of a time before electric lights, when the cover of darkness was thick and seamless. Don’t be surprised, though, if the glow of some awkwardly placed artificial lights — from streetlights or even on the sides of businesses — intrudes in places. That would improve the ambience not just this special night, but all dark nights of the year.
For tonight, though, it is Christmas Eve in Santa Fe, la Noche Buena. The wait for the Christ Child is almost over, with the tiny lights pushing back against the darkness.
As the late Pedro Ribera Ortega wrote in his classic, Christmas in Old Santa Fe, the humble paper bag and its candlelight glow have captured the imagination of visitors like no other Christmas tradition: “There is nothing elaborate or fancy or expensive about these farolitos, and yet they serve the purpose; they aptly promote and enhance the mood and spirit of the coming of the Messiah, the birth of the Christ Child.”
Ribera Ortega is clear to differentiate between farolitos and luminarias, the bonfires being a more ancient tradition. He traces those “little fires” back to those kept by shepherds, back at the first Noche Buena near Bethlehem.
The custom of lighting such bonfires came to the New World with Spanish settlers, a way to provide warmth and light the way at Christmas Eve for the baby for whom people waited.
As with so many Christian customs, Native people — who had their own winter traditions involving light — adopted those bonfires. Some of the more majestic winter ceremonies on Christmas Eve can be found at area pueblos, where bonfires stretch deep into the dark night sky. For those minutes the flames burn, the darkness is vanquished.
Farolitos, on the other hand, came along much later, a custom that Ribera Ortega traces again to the Spanish Empire. This time, he connects the tradition of Chinese paper lanterns that became popular in the Philippines and then traveled to Mexico, eventually making their way to New Mexico.
Such lanterns were fragile, though, so Ribera Ortega theorizes that when the Americans brought paper bags, a new tradition was born in rough and tumble New Mexico. It is an adaptation so typical of New Mexico, symbolizing how people of the frontier used ingenuity to create beauty out of the most humble materials — in this case, a paper bag, sand and a candle.
Ribera Ortega wrote that, “only the courageous tenacity of the Spanish people kept the festive farolito from disappearing. And the effective lighting that it is today, the simplicity and ingenuity of construction, the availability of inexpensive materials, all of this serves its purpose.”
Farolitos, Ribera Ortega wrote, “are a festive lighting, a heart-warming illumination that reiterates that glorious message of the angels: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.’ ”
On this night, as you walk among the twinkling lights of Santa Fe’s east side, or perhaps attend a church service or sit by the fire with family, be of good will. The light is returning, and it is that promise that provides comfort through these dark nights of winter.