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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.
References in periodicals archive ?
The first story, "The Farolitos of Christmas," tells how a girl named Luz made many special farolitos, or special luminarias made of sand, candles, and paper bags.
He has also written numerous short stories, essays, and children's books, including The Farolitos of Christmas and Maya's Children, and coedited Aztlan: Essays on the Chicano Homeland.
Los tres o cuatro farolitos que estaban colgados en algunos arboles del cafe, daban bastante luz para acompanar, sin danar la tersura de la noche.
Mientras buscabamos una mesa, entre farolitos encendidos como las luces en los puentes de un barco, nos seduce la idea, por la decoracion, maderamenes, timon al centro, ambiente cerrado, compacto, de estar en el famoso ballenero que por aguas oceanicas persigue a las ballenas azules.
As the director of the Casa de la Cultura and a native of Ahuachapin, she played a major role in the revival of the farolitos.
In Grandma's youth, people built farolitos, small, slow-burning pitch fires, near a church or house on each of nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve.
A bagpiper will play "Amazing Grace," and the Greater Auburn Community Chorus will perform while individually decorated farolitos will be lighted all the way around the track.
Las casas se adornaban con farolitos, flores de nochebuena y adornos puramente mexicanos.
Mientras mis pensamientos me atormentaban, repentinamente nos detuvimos ante una basta linea de arbustos que cercaban celosamente un parque muy arbolado, debilmente iluminado por unos laganosos farolitos.
Hallaba facilmente melodias propias o ajenas y, metiendo su geografia pintoresca y su mundo "bohemio" en canciones de tres minutos, celebro a sirenas de mar y de bar, toreros faraonicos, tropicos siempre soleados, noches enjoyadas de luceros, fraternales farolitos de calles desiertas, orgias bohemias, albas de remordimiento, damas de alabastro suspirante, rumberas de fogosa grupa bisiesta, playas donde Maria Bonita (la Felix) enjuagaba las estrellitas, etc.
At night the city flickers in the glow of farolitos (known as luminarias everywhere else in New Mexico), paper sacks lit by dime-store votive candles - a demonstration of New Mexico's gift for making transcendent beauty out of ordinary materials.
Pero apenas los guardas de gas corren con aquellos ingeniosos farolitos, Mexico, la jamona melindrosa, siente los sintomas de la histeria, y arroja al suelo su