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Luminarias (pronounced "loo-mee-NAR-ee-yahs") means "lights" or "illuminations" in Spanish. The word also refers to the small bonfires that illuminate the dark nights of the Christmas season throughout the American Southwest (see also Farolitos). These bonfires are made from piñon pine logs that have been stacked in logcabin fashion to form a box about three feet in height. Although one may spot luminarias throughout the Christmas season, they are most common on Christmas Eve. On that evening the little bonfires blaze in front of churches, homes, and in public plazas guiding worshipers to mass, enlivening public and family celebrations, and welcoming the coming of the Christ child.

Some believe that the custom of celebrating Christmas Eve with luminarias can be traced all the way back to the fires that warmed the shepherds to whom the birth of Jesus was announced in the Gospel according to Luke. Others say the custom came from Native American traditions, which Spanish missionaries later incorporated into the celebration of Christmas. Still others think that Spanish missionaries brought the custom with them to Mexico. They note that the Spanish custom evolved out of various pagan European practices (see also Advent Candle; Christmas Candles; Martinmas; Yule). Whatever its origins, the earliest historical record of the practice in the New World dates back to the sixteenth century. Spanish missionaries, sent to evangelize the native peoples of Mexico, wrote that on Christmas Eve the people celebrated by singing, drumming, and lighting bonfires on church patios and on the roofs of their flat-topped houses.

Today, the custom of lighting luminarias on Christmas Eve continues in New Mexico. Although city conditions sometimes make the lighting of outdoor fires difficult, many people and organizations strive to continue this old custom. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, organized tours guide interested viewers through the neighborhoods that tend to offer the best displays.

Further Reading

Christmas in the American Southwest. Chicago: World Book, 1996. Ribera Ortega, Pedro. Christmas in Old Santa Fe. Second edition. Santa Fe, N.M.: Sunstone Press, 1973.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
References in periodicals archive ?
These areas limit their streets to automobile traffic on Christmas Eve, and together host the City's largest concentration of lights and luminarias. Old Town also features the City's annual holiday tree and the famous decorations / ceremonies of the San Felipe de Neri church.
Luminarias with LED tea light shine brightly--and safely--for up to 36 hours.
Os resultados encontrados sao justificados tanto pela existencia da abertura zenital na casa inovadora, que proporciona maior uniformidade de distribuicao das iluminancias ao longo do dia, como pela melhor distribuicao e eficiencia das lampadas e luminarias, proporcionando maior nivel medio de iluminancia, com menor consumo energetico.
They're particularly great for outdoor lighting in windy weather, for luminarias and around children.
The "Luminarias", on the night before yesterday's feast of St Anthony, is staged in the Spanish village of San Bartolome de los Pinares about 100km north west of Madrid.