Tubac AZ Luminaria Nights - Fiesta de Navidad
An Annual Southwestern Christmas Tradition
This year my wife and I visited the Luminaria NIghts - Fiesta de Navidad an annual Christmas Season event in the village of Tubac, Arizona which is located a little over 40 miles south of Tucson International Airport in Arizona.
Luminaria NIghts - Fiesta de Navidad is a two evening event that has been celebrated the first weekend in December in the village of Tubac for over 30 years.
The celebration begins at dusk with all the village’s shops and resturants remaining open until 9 p.m.
We arrived about 6 p.m. shortly after sunset. Most of the regular parking spots were already taken but we found a spot just east of the main shopping district along Tubac Rd.
Village of Tubac - 40 Miles South of Tucson on I-19
Dinner in December on Patio of Restaurant
The sun had recently set behind the mountains to the west but its rays, aided by the rising full moon, still provided not only some lingering daylight but also washed the towering Santa Rita mountains to the east in a reddish hue.
It was a short walk from where we parked to the Mercado de Baca, where we had dinner reservations at Shelby’s Bistro one of the many little restaurants located in Tubac. Mercado de Baca is one of the many small shopping centers consisting of small shops and restaurants built around little plazas similar to those in old European cities.
Tubac and Majestic Santa Rita Mountains
This is Arizona and, despite the fact this was an evening early in December, the weather was still moderate. The temperature was about 60 when we parked the car and, as darkness descended it cooled down to the high 40 degree range. Wearing light jackets we, like other patrons, were able to comfortably dine outside on the restaurant’s patio. On one side of us we could see the distant Santa Rita mountains and on the other side was a plaza with a guitar playing musician serenading the shoppers and diners with Christmas music.
As the darkness of the night deepened, the Santa Rita mountains slowly disappeared from view and the glow Christmas lights and luminaria became more prominent as surrounding buildings and objects faded in the enveloping dark leaving only the decorative lights outlining walkways and buildings.
My Wife in Mercado de Baca
Luminaria - Traditional Southwestern Christmas Lighting
Luminaria is a Spanish word that is generally used to describe the practice of outlining a walkway or the flat roofs of traditional single story adobe buildings using small paper bags containing some sand or small stones and a lighted candle inside.
Nowadays people also have the option of using commercially produced plastic decorations made to look like small paper bags with a small electric bulb inside. Both have the same look and emotional appeal with the exception that the electric version doesn’t burn out as candles tend to do.
My Wife on Path Illuminated with Luminaria
Are the Bags with Candle inside Luminarias or Farolitos?
Luminaria are an old Mexican custom that was brought to the American Southwest by Spanish settlers as Spanish control was extended northward into what is now the American Southwest and California. In recent years the custom has spread to other parts of the United States as an additional means of decorative Christmas lighting.
While luminaria is the common term applied the candle-in-a-bag decorations, purists, mostly living in New Mexico, argue that the correct name for this type of holiday decoration is farolito.
According to these people, and history appears to be on their side, Luminaria (which roughly means illumination in English) refers to any type of illumination used in festivals. In the past luminaria consisted of bonfires, torches and other means of providing light for nighttime celebrations.
Tubac Was Ablaze in Light
Roots of Farolito's go back to Ancient China
In his 1973 book, Christmas in Old Santa Fe, Pedro Ribera Ortega explains that the proper name for the candle-in-a-bag type of festive lighting is Farolito.
Pedro Ribera Ortega's "Christmas in Old Santa Fe"
Ortega traces the history of the Farolito and its use as a specific type of decorative lighting for festive occasions rather than being just another type of illumination for nighttime festivities.
In his history Ortega points out that the farolito’s origins go back to the ancient Chinese practice of using paper lanterns with candles in them on festive occasions. The use of paper lanterns in China date back to two centuries or so before the birth of Christ.
Sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish merchants operating out of the Philippine Islands, which, like Mexico, were controlled by Spain at the time, and trading with China brought the practice back to the Philippines and began using the paper lanterns for Christmas and other festive celebrations.
Custom Spreads from Philippines to Mexico and then to American Southwest
Traders operating the trade route between Spanish ruled Mexico and Spanish ruled Philippines introduced decorated paper lanterns to Mexico where the custom took root and has remained popular to this day.
As Spanish conquest and settlement moved north into what is now the southwestern United States the practice of using paper lanterns or farolitos for nighttime Christmas and other festive occasions accompanied them.
Tubac's Historic St. Anne's Church
How Paper Bags Came to Replace Paper Lanterns
One problem the settlers in the new lands north of Old Mexico was the high cost of products they couldn’t produce themselves. These things, which, according to Ortega, included the thin paper used to make paper lanterns, had to be shipped from Mexico and tended to be costly.
The solution came in the form of Anglo traders from the eastern part of what is now the U.S. Despite Spanish laws against trade with those outside the Spanish Empire, Santa Fe and other outposts on the northern edge of Spain’s New World dominions began trading with local indians and eventually French and American traders and explorers.
A Pennsylvanian, Francis Wolle invented and in 1852 patented a machine for making paper bags that came to be used by merchants for holding shoppers’ purchases. Wolle and some associates went on to form the Union Paper Bag Machine Company.
In 1870 a woman employee in Wolle’s company designed a modification for his machine that was able to cut, fold and paste the bottom of paper bags into a rectangle that allowed the bag to stand up. Thus the modern brown paper grocery bag came into being.
Buildings with Farolitos in Front and On the Roof
Use of Paper Bags is an Anglo Contribution to the Luminaria Tradition
Again according to Ortega, traders from the United States traveling down the Santa Fe and other trails began bringing paper bags along with other goods to merchants in Santa Fe and other remote settlements in the southwest.
The primarily Mexican residents of this area quickly realized that the brown paper bags their purchases came in could be re-used and substituted for the expensive decorative paper needed for the paper lanterns.
The flat bottoms of the paper bags made it easy to keep the bag upright once some sand or stones were added to weight them down and keep them from blowing over in the breeze. The paper walls of the bags were sufficient to protect the candle’s flame from being extinguished by the breeze while also thin enough to allow a warm glow of light to emanate through the sides of the bag.
Patio of Tubac Store Decorated for Fiesta de Natividad
Despite Disagreement over Name, the Tradition Will Continue Gaining Popularity
Despite the differences of opinion over the correct name for this holiday decorating custom, we can be certain that its popularity will continue to grow and be shared with others at Christmas time.
Like other popular traditions and customs people like what they see and adapt the custom for themselves. In doing this they frequently tweak or modify the tradition some to fit
While it is good to know and appreciate the history and tradition behind the Farolito the name by which the tradition will move forward will be decided by how people in the broader culture choose to refer to these decorations.
Given that increasing numbers of people new to the tradition live outside New Mexico, my guess is Lumenaria will win out as that is the name that the broader American population currently refers this type of decoration
My Wife Framed by Lighted Trees
Decoration's Name Will Be Decided by those Who Use and Enjoy Them
Despite the fact that some purists will continue to refer to the lights as Farolito, this won’t be the first change in the custom.
After all, the use of paper lanterns originated in China some two centuries before the birth of Christ and the first Christmas. These Chinese paper lanterns are not only different than what the Farolito or Luminaria have evolved into over the years, the Chinese paper lanterns continue to be used in Chinese festivals including in the Lantern Festival which occurs on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year celebrations which pre-date Christmas.
So, like other Christmas traditions, the decorations known as Farolito or Luminaria will change and evolve as they continue to add to the festive atmosphere of the Christmas Season in North America.
Path in Tubac, AZ Lit by Luminaria
© 2014 Chuck Nugent
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