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Work of Art — Luminaria or farolito: That is the question

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By Art Trujillo

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in the 2013 edition of Tradiciones.

The question was: “What do you call those things you put a candle into and line your driveway with?” The answer was: “They’re luminarias, but in some places, they’re called farolitos.”

Alas, but a once-and-for-all answer is not possible. Researching something like the difference between the two terms, which surface each Christmas season, isn’t a question of exhaustive sources; rather, it’s a matter of being selective:

There are reams of articles on these topics.

We contacted a few people from northern New Mexico to get their take on luminarias and farolitos, and while there is some agreement on terms, people put their own slant on things.

Rudy Laumbach maintains that the farolito is the item that contains a candle, whereas the luminaria is really a bonfire. And how does a farolito become a luminaria? Well, it happens when the paper bag that encloses the candle ignites and starts a bonfire.

Erminio Martinez recalls that “people would make a little stack of sticks and light them just before Christmas. When in his teens, in the ‘40s, Erminio watched and helped as family chopped little pieces of wood. The purpose was “to light the way for the Christ child to get to your house,” he said.

Martinez is from Holman, a place fraught with tradition, where the day after Christmas, children, in a trick-or-treat fashion, visited neighbors’ homes and chanted a ditty, part of which goes, “Oremos, oremos/ angelitos semos/ del cielo venemos/ a pedir oremos.”

A loose translation is “We pray, we pray/ we’re little angels from heaven who come to ask for alms.”

It’s followed by a threat to vandalize the houses if no treats are forthcoming.

To fellow Las Vegan, Peggy Hoogerhuies, who makes no distinction between luminarias and farolitos, the lighted object is what people placed in yards and driveways to commemorate the passing away of a family member or friend. While still working at what was then the State Hospital, Peggy helped set up the elaborate luminaria drive-through at Luna Community College, following the annual Electric Light Parade.

Henry and Teresa Trujillo, retirees after 28 and 18 years from the West Las Vegas Schools, remember times in their youth when Christmas rituals were steeped in tradition. Henry’s recollection is that the farolitos were composed of stacks of sticks of wood that created a path to the church.

Henry says he attended Our Lady of Sorrows church and recalls walking through rows of the illuminated paper bags on the way to services. “They were lit in proximity to churches to guide parishioners to the church,” he said.

Teresa, a former elementary school teacher in the West District, remembers that the little bonfires were farolitos and the candles inside paper bags were luminarias.

Growing up in nearby Anton Chico, Theresa recalls the large part farolitos and luminarias played in rituals such as Las Posadas. She laments the diminution of such ceremonies, saying, “We’re losing our culture, our traditions and even our language.”

Guided by candlelight and bonfires — she said there was precious little light at night in that pin-dot community — villagers took part in what was then a carefully orchestrated ritual, in which pre-selected homes served as the “inn” that would welcome the Holy Family, on the way to Bethlehem.

At some places, Teresa says, there was no room at the inn. “Dueling” choruses would sing songs either pushing to have Mary and Joseph allowed into the “inn,” or using lyrics urging the opposite. The pre-selected “inn” would open its doors to all, where feasting and singing followed.

All those interviewed on their impressions of the significance of farolitos vs. luminarias provide somewhat similar stories, although they don’t all agree on the terminology on those lighted objects.

These days, technology allows for the bags to be lighted by electricity, and — who knows? — whether the candles, sticks and paper bags of old may some day morph into a spectacular laser show.

People will probably never agree on whether they’re luminarias or farolitos. The issue may become as tenacious as whether the “Christmas” combination served in restaurants trumps red or green chile, or even whether the spelling is chili or chile.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to art@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.