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

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A markerTucson International Airport -
Tucson International Airport, 7250 South Tucson Boulevard, Tucson, AZ 85756, USA
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Tucson International Airport (TUS)

B markerVillage of Tubac, AZ -
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Village of Tubac

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

Santa Rita Mountains at sunset overlooking village of Tubac, AZ
Santa Rita Mountains at sunset overlooking village of Tubac, AZ | Source

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

Mercado de Baca decorated for La Nividad in Village of Tubac, AZ
Mercado de Baca decorated for La Nividad in Village of Tubac, AZ | Source

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

My wife on path illuminated with traditional Luminaria consisting of small paper bags with a candle inside
My wife on path illuminated with traditional Luminaria consisting of small paper bags with a candle inside | Source

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

Tubac Shop Owners go all out for Fiesta de La Navidad
Tubac Shop Owners go all out for Fiesta de La Navidad | Source

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

Luminaria in front of Tubac's historic St. Anne's Church
Luminaria in front of Tubac's historic St. Anne's Church | Source

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

Farolitos line the roof and front of this shop
Farolitos line the roof and front of this shop | Source

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

Patio of Store in Tubac, AZ decked out for Christmas
Patio of Store in Tubac, AZ decked out for Christmas | Source

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

My wife surrounded by Christmas lights in Tubac, AZ
My wife surrounded by Christmas lights in Tubac, AZ | Source

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

Farolitos illuminate a path through the dark in Tubac, AZ during Christmas Season
Farolitos illuminate a path through the dark in Tubac, AZ during Christmas Season | Source

© 2014 Chuck Nugent

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Comments 8 comments

Chuck profile image

Chuck 23 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

aetheltryth - Thanks for your comments.

As I mentioned in the Hub people are free to call the decorations whatever they want but, as you point out "Luminaria" is the name most people associate with this lighting custom.

Finally, thanks for sharing the Oklahoman adaptation of decorating using electric light bulbs inside plastic milk jugs - this is another nice twist on the tradition.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 23 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

john000 - Thanks for visiting and I am glad you enjoyed my Hub.

I agree, Arizona is a great place to live. We usually get down to Tubac a couple of times a year. My wife enjoys visiting the shops. I know it can be a drive from Superior as you are further north than northwest Tucson where we live and it is some 40 miles or so from our home to Tubac. While our visits to Tubac are usually a Sunday afternoon drive down and back, this time we decided to make a weekend of it. There was another event going taking place on Saturday and Sunday in Tumacácori which is 2 or 3 miles south of Tubac. So we made a weekend of it going to Tubac Saturday evening then staying in a hotel in nearby Green Valley that night and visiting the festival in Tumacácori on Sunday before returning home.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 23 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Doitrightnow – thanks for your kind and informative comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the Hub and hope you get a chance to visit the festival in the future.

As to the rest of your post, I appreciate the additional information. In my research I did not bother to trace the origin of the word “farolitos” so your providing that information was a good addition to the Hub. Also, while I have enjoyed visiting neighboring New Mexico a few times I have either failed to notice or don’t recall seeing any churches or missions called “El Faro”. However, not knowing the word “farolito” until I began this Hub I could have visited some churches or missions with the name “El Faro” without it registering in my memory. Thanks to you I will now be on the lookout for the name “El Faro” when visiting old churches and missions.

As to “the Christian picture of Jesus Christ as the Light of the World”, this I was aware of and see how it fits in with the decorations. I actually had a reference to this in one of my earlier drafts while writing this Hub but ended up removing it during the editing process when I realized that the focus of the Hub had veered toward the Farolitos / Luminaria debate. I was in a hurry to finish and publish the Hub as soon after Christmas as possible, as I hadn’t had time to finish and publish it before Christmas, so I dropped the reference rather than develop and incorporate it. I will probably update the Hub before next Christmas and will try to incorporate the “Light of the World” reference into the update.

Thanks again for your feedback and additional information. I really appreciate your taking the time to provide this.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 23 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Genna East - Thank you for your comments I am glad you enjoyed this Hub.

Increased public interest in farolitios / luminaria was starting about 30 years ago when I first moved to Arizona. While many Mexican-American families had been decorating with these the tradition and history behind the tradition was mostly unknown by the general public. I first heard about it from a newspaper article the second or third year after we moved here. The article was an announcement that the Degrazia Gallery in the Sun the former home & workshop of the late Tucson artist Ted Degrazia) had decided to revive the tradition by decorating the walkways and flat roofs of its buildings with luminaria (and as I recall, they referred to the lights as luminaria). The Degrazia Gallery continued the tradition and others followed (the Tubac tradition appears to have started about this time also, but I was not aware of it until this year.

Thanks again for your kind comments.


Genna East profile image

Genna East 23 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

I enjoyed this fun and interesting tour. I love those lights in the bag – part of the farolitio --and often wonder where they originated from. Thanks for this illuminating excursion.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 23 months ago from American Southwest

Okay, I call it "luminaria" so people know what I'm talking about, but I mentally correct myself to "farolito" because I have seen real luminaras on Christmas Eve on the hills between Chimayo and Espanola, NM, and the combination of luminarias and farolitos (if you have a neighborhood where they aren't being overpowered by electric lights) is so spectacular it is worth the considerable time investment!

Also, I have to say the best candles for lasting all night are those yellow votive candles you can buy by the box in New Mexico and I can't find at all in Colorado.

I have also seen in Oklahoma what I thought was sort of a modern Oklahoman adaptation of the idea; lining pathways with strings of big-bulb lights, but each bulb had a plastic milk jug upsidedown over it, creating what looks like a string of gigantic bulbs.

Thanks for writing about my favorite Christmas decorations.


john000 profile image

john000 23 months ago from Superior, Arizona

Another great article about Arizona. It is wonderful to live in a place like this - Arizona - there is so much beauty to see. It has been a number of years since I have been to Tubac. I live in Superior now, but lived most of my life in Tucson. Your video brought back fond memories. The last time I was in Tubac there was a Christmas shop with all sorts of ornaments and bobbles. My wife used to like to go there just to see that shop. Supper down a pace at the Halfway House was always good. Quite appropriate to hear Gene Autry in your video. 3 thumbs up.


doitrightnow 23 months ago

Beautilful Hub, richly detailed and well written. I want to go see this Christmas festival sometime! I appreciate that you used your own photos and videos as opposed to cribbing something from Google, as so many are in the habit of doing here on HubPages.

A little detail that will be meaningful to some is the fact that the word "farolitos" comes from the Spanish "faro," which means lighthouse. It's true that the original lanterns were invented in China, but they were adopted into the Christmas traditions of the Spanish settlers in the Southwest because they reminded them of the Christian picture of Jesus Christ as the Light of the World. In two famous Christmas prophecies, Isaiah spoke of the coming Messiah as a light bringing, saying, "the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned" (9:2). And again, in a passage that Handel incorporated into his "Messiah," the prophet writes of the coming Savior, "Arise and shine, for thy light is come!" (60:1). The Spanish settlers, who were devoutly Catholic, also were aware that Jesus said, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). In many Christian traditions, the lighthouse is used to remind the devout of the presence of Jesus Christ in the life of the believer. You will note that countless churches and missions scattered throughout the Spanish-speaking world are called "El Faro" for this reason. It is also why little lights, such as candles and strings of colored lights, are synonymous with Christmas in so many cultures and traditions.

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