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In the American Southwest glowing paper sacks decorate the outlines of buildings, patios, walkways, and plazas at night during the Christmas season. These ornamental lights are called farolitos (pronounced fah-roh-LEE-tohs), meaning "little lanterns" in Spanish.

Farolitos are made with brown paper lunch bags, votive candles, and sand. To make one for yourself, turn over the rim of a brown paper bag to form a cuff. This helps to keep the bag open. Next pour several inches of sand into the bag. The sand weighs the bag down and anchors the candle. Place the bag outdoors at night, push a votive candle into the sand, and light the wick. The candlelight shining through the brown paper gives off a mellow, golden glow in the darkness.

Although farolitos came to the Southwest from Mexico, their historical roots can be traced all the way back to China. Spanish merchants made this link possible. From the early sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries Spain held both Mexico and the Philippines as colonies. Trade relations linked the Philippines with China. These links gave Spanish merchants access to Chinese goods, which they began to export to other places. Chinese paper lanterns, imported from the Philippines to Mexico by Spanish traders, proved popular in the New World. The Mexicans used them for many kinds of celebrations, including Christmas.

By the early nineteenth century the lanterns had spread north to territories now considered part of the United States. Unfortunately, the delicate paper that surrounded the lantern frame quickly perished in the rough conditions to which they were exposed. Frontier settlers soon hit upon a cheaper and sturdier alternative. They began to make lanterns with plain brown wrapping paper made available to them by recently increased trade along the Santa Fe Trail. The new farolitos not only proved hardier but also cast an amber glow that favored the warm colors characteristic of southwestern architecture and landscapes. Today these beautiful lights constitute an important Christmas symbol in the American Southwest.

In some areas of the Southwest farolitos are known as Luminarias. In other areas the two customs remain distinct. In northern New Mexico, for example, the word "luminarias" refers to small Christmas season bonfires while the decorative brown paper lanterns are known as farolitos.

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
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