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Holiday light displays: Where to see farolitos and luminarias

El Santuario de Chimayo Roman Catholic church in Chimayó, New Mexico. El Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico is alight with farolitos at Christmastime. | Photo by Doreen Lawrence/stock.adobe.com

The quivering glow from candles lit within paper bags lining city streets lends a special ambience to New Mexico’s holiday season. Whether you call them farolitos, as people do in the northern part of the state, or luminarias, as they are commonly called in the south, there is no mistaking their universal appeal at Christmastime.

The farolito tradition began more than 300 years ago, when Spanish settlers along the Rio Grande created these simple lanterns as a symbolic homage to welcome baby Jesus on Christmas. Luminarias are part of modern-day Las Posadas celebrations, which take place from December 16 to 24.

“It’s a very magical feeling, very peaceful. Having this luminaria tradition passed down from generation to generation—I don’t think New Mexico would be the same without this,” says Brenna Moore, communications manager of Visit Albuquerque. 

We created our own New Mexico farolito journey for you. Follow the illuminated pathways and find your own peace during this holiday season, just as the Spanish settlers did all those years ago. Here’s a roundup of a few beloved holiday farolito and luminaria trails in New Mexico, along with other holiday events and traditions worth exploring this Christmas season.

Albuquerque

Farolitos in Old Town Albuquerque. | Photo by MarbleStreetStudio.com

Farolitos in Old Town Albuquerque. | Photo by MarbleStreetStudio.com

Albuquerque is an epicenter of luminaria activity. Take a self-guided stroll or a guided tour through the neighborhoods surrounding Old Town to experience the breathtaking beauty of the season in this historic downtown.

Festivities kick off with the Old Town Holiday Stroll and tree lighting in Plaza Don Luis, scheduled this year for December 3 at 6 p.m., when shopkeepers and residents begin placing their luminarias, but you’re likely to see the most lantern lights on Christmas Eve.

If you’d prefer a guided tour, snag a ticket from Albuquerque’s transit system ABQ Ride, or ride an open trolley through Albuquerque Tourism and Sightseeing Factory, which provides hot chocolate and cookies on board. Bike tours are also available. All tours typically sell out, so purchase your tickets early.

Other holiday events in Albuquerque include a huge caravan of lights during the Twinkle Light Parade on December 4 and the River of Lights, the largest walk-through holiday light display in New Mexico, at ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden

Santa Fe

Santa Fe’s Canyon Road Farolito Walk. | Photo courtesy Visit Santa Fe

Santa Fe’s Canyon Road Farolito Walk. | Photo courtesy Visit Santa Fe

Santa Fe’s Canyon Road Farolito Walk draws thousands of visitors on Christmas Eve, when art galleries, businesses, and residents put out their farolitos along a mile-long stretch of Canyon Road. Automobile traffic in this area is closed off, so you can proceed along the trail by foot, enjoying the festive atmosphere. Local tip: Stop in Kakawa Chocolate House for a selection of hot chocolates to fuel your journey.

Canyon Road also hosts a Holiday Block Party in December. Check the website for the most up-to-date information. You can also take a gallery walk lined with farolitos, as well as indulge in holiday cookies and beverages served inside the art galleries.

The New Mexico Museum of History will host its annual Las Posadas celebration in the Plaza; it usually takes place the first weekend of December.

Pecos

Farolito Walk on Pecos National Historic Park’s Ancestral Sites Trail. | Photo NPS Photo/Stan Ford 2018

Farolito Walk on Pecos National Historic Park’s Ancestral Sites Trail. | Photo NPS Photo/Stan Ford 2018

Pecos National Historical Park, about a 30-mile drive from Santa Fe off Interstate 25, hosts a free Farolito Walk in December. Begin at the park visitors center for a cup of complimentary hot coffee or cocoa and a biscochito. Then, follow the Farolito Walk’s mile-long trail, which features more than 3,500 farolitos along the park’s Ancestral Sites Trail and inside its Spanish Mission Church, which dates to 1717. 

Jemez Springs

Farolito trail in Light Among the Ruins at the Jemez Historic Site. | Photo by DCA/NMHS Photo

Farolito trail in Light Among the Ruins at the Jemez Historic Site. | Photo by DCA/NMHS Photo

A gorgeous display of light and history, Light Among the Ruins, washes Jemez Historic Site, the location of the Giusewa Pueblo and San José de los Jemez Mission, with the glow of farolitos. After admiring the farolitos, stay for performances of Native American flute music and Jemez Pueblo dance. 

Chimayó

Sacred display of farolitos at Santuario de Chimayó. | Photo courtesy Julio Gonzalez/Santuario de Chimayó

Sacred display of farolitos at Santuario de Chimayó. | Photo courtesy Julio Gonzalez/Santuario de Chimayó

Chimayó, located about 30 miles north of Santa Fe, celebrates the holiday season with a sacred display of farolitos at Santuario de Chimayó, starting on Thanksgiving and ending on the day of the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus in January. The village also celebrates Las Posadas, with processions for each of the nine nights before Christmas.

Las Cruces

At New Mexico State University, you’ll find 7,000 luminarias starting with an annual Noche de Luminarias in early December, before students leave for their holiday break. This event welcomes community members with horse-drawn carriage rides, vendors, and pictures with Santa.

In downtown Las Cruces, the annual Christmas tree lighting takes place in the plaza. City departments set up booths with Christmas activities and crafts for visitors. Grab a cup of champurrado, a rich New Mexican hot chocolate, as you take part in the festivities.

Mesilla

Located 5 miles from Las Cruces, Mesilla fills its traditional Spanish plaza with 6,000 luminarias. They start popping up throughout December, with the pinnacle celebration taking place on Christmas Eve.

Read more: How Mesilla businesses survived the pandemic.

Radium Springs

Luminarias sprinkled throughoout Fort Selden Historic Site. | Photo courtesy Tom Conelly

Luminarias sprinkled throughoout Fort Selden Historic Site. | Photo courtesy Tom Conelly

Fort Selden Historic Site, 20 miles north of Las Cruces, hosts Las Noches de las Luminarias from 6 to 9 p.m. on December 18, with over 800 luminarias sprinkled throughout the fort ruins. Visitors can enjoy songs from carolers, a warm campfire, refreshments, and crafts.

How to make a farolito:

Want to make your own farolito to celebrate the holidays at home? Follow these simple instructions:

Gather your materials: a paper lunch bag, a votive candle (a long-burning candle with votive cups is recommended) or a battery-operated LED tealight, a scoop of sand, and a lighter. 

Directions: Fold down the top of your paper bag about one inch to form a lip. Scoop in sand to weigh down your farolito (about 2 inches per bag). The sand helps prevent the farolito from falling over and setting a fire. Then, place your votive candle in the center and light it, avoiding touching the sides of the bag with the flame. 

Watch out: Keep an eye on your farolito while it’s lit and extinguish the candle when finished.

Cynthia J. Drake is a travel writer on a mission to find the best hot chocolate.

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