Take a small paper bag, pour in a couple cups of sand, and stick a tea light in the center: as Christmas lights go, farolitos would seem to rank on the less-impressive side of the scale. There’s an army of technically-skilled Clark Griswolds out there vying for viral fame with computer-controlled musically-synchronized light displays.
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But line up a few thousand lantern bags along Santa Fe’s streets and adobe walls, and together they cast a Yuletide spell unlike any other in the country. People drive for hours to visit during the city’s annual Christmas Eve Farolito Walk, which winds down Canyon Road, whose galleries form the center of the art scene in a city that boasts the most artists per capita. Almost every house or building is lined with them, forming a soft glow that dots the frosty high desert night.
Of all the many ways that Spanish colonialism left its mark on the culture, architecture, and food of the Southwest, from the ubiquitous adobe homes to the green chile that is serious business in New Mexico, the farolitos surely rank among the most charming.
There’s some disagreement about the terminology used to describe the lanterns. Outside of Santa Fe, in places such as Albuquerque and parts of Texas, they’re called luminarias, but Santa Fe residents insist that farolito, or little lantern, is the proper term, and they point to their status as the oldest capital city in the U.S. to bolster their claim to tradition. They’ve been doing this since at least 1610, after all.
The lanterns themselves are a vestige of the Spanish missionaries and the merchants who accompanied them, whom it’s believed found inspiration in the Chinese paper lanterns they encountered on their travels. Initially regarded as landing lights of a sort for the spirit of Christ to visit on Christmas, they’ve become secularized and now tend to be viewed simply as a Southwest-style Christmas light. And their popularity has begun to spread to other parts of the country.
It’s become increasingly popular to substitute a string of electric farolito lanterns, molded from plastic, around one’s property. Open flames inside paper bags tend to worry some people. Add kids – who tend to be flammable – into the mix, and it’s an understandable nod to modern fire safety protocols. It’s also much easier to line the top of a wall or a roof edge with a few dozen lanterns that don’t require climbing a ladder in 25-degree temperature to re-light every couple of hours.
Some people, like my friend Rick Casados, a displaced Santa Fe native, wanted to bring some hometown Christmas cheer with him this year after a recent move back to New York. A fifth-generation Santa Fean, Casados returned to the East Coast last month after five years in New Mexico, but was determined to bring a bit of home back with him for the holidays.
I had been vaguely aware of these simple yet beautiful lanterns before my first visit to Santa Fe a few years ago, but it wasn’t until I saw the logic of them that holiday season that I fully understood their appeal. Square lanterns made from sand and wood are the perfect way to decorate squared-off homes made from earth and wood.
It’s every bit as impressive a Christmas lighting tradition as the most satellite-visible Dyker Heights front yard imaginable, which is kind of awesome when you consider that it’s just a bunch of candles nestled inside the same paper bags used to hide tallboys in public.
Don’t get me wrong: I love me a maniacal Christmas home decorator, and there’s a certain kind of feverish competition between homes in some of New York City’s remaining Italian-American enclaves that gives the holiday here a uniquely Brooklyn flavor, but I love saving thousands on my Con Ed bill even more.
Santa Fe’s Farolito Walk starts at dusk, and while it can get insanely crowded, it’s free, and many galleries and other places welcome walkers with hot cider and open bonfires (which Santa Feans call luminiarias). The fun starts at sunset, but some people recommend starting around 8pm, when the crowds begin to thin out. Restaurants fill quickly. Remember: Santa Fe is the high desert, and the temperature can drop 30 degrees in the evening. Wear layers.
Should you require the kind of visual and auditory overload only a visit to Brooklyn’s most turned-out homes can offer, A Slice of Brooklyn Tours offers a Christmas lights bus tour that visits some of Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge’s most famous display homes, capped with a stop for some real-deal fresh cannoli and hot chocolate. Tour lasts about 3 ½ hours, and buses leave from Union Square. Adults: $55, children, $45.