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Every December, my three older sisters and I would look forward to the evening our parents would load us into our mini-van with every blanket we owned, a thermos of hot chocolate, and a handful of Bing Crosby discs. We would wind through the streets of Tucson for hours, hitting all the old standbys—Disney Lane, Winterhaven, and any neighborhood that caught our eyes on the way. We would ooh and ah at the holiday lights, sing Christmas songs, and whenever we passed a well-organized display of electric luminarias, my Dad would turn around from the driver’s seat. “And what are those, kids?” he would ask mischievously. “FAKERS!” we screamed at the top of our lungs. My father is a self-described luminaria purist. If it’s not an unattended fire hazard, it’s not Christmas. Anything more extravagant (or up to code) than a paper lunch bag filled with arroyo sand warrants vigorous condemnation. According to some, the birth of the luminaria can be attributed to the journal pages of a Portuguese Conquistador. Gaspar Castaño de

Sosa attempted to establish an unauthorized colony in New Mexico at the end of the 16th century. In an entry dated December 3, 1590, Sosa mentions that his compatriots lit small bonfires to guide a scout into their camp. Luminarias, or “little lights,” he called them. The legend goes that although Sosa’s dreams of establishing a colony dissolved, the idea of a luminaria, a fire lighting a path for the wayward, stuck. However, a deeper look at Southwestern history reveals the word was already in use well before Sosa’s ill-fated expedition. Franciscan monk Toribio de Benavente Montolinia, known as one of the original “12 Apostles of Mexico,” describes the little lights as early as 1568. “The Indians celebrate the feast of the Lord, of Our Lady and of the principal Patron Saints of the towns with much rejoicing and solemnity,” Montolinia notes. “The Indians place many luminarias in the patios of the churches and on the terraces of their houses. Since there are many flat-roofed houses and these extend a 14

league or two, the scene resembles the starry skies.” In his book Christmas in old Santa Fe, the late New Mexico historian Pedro Ribera-Ortega explains that luminarias date back even further than the arrival of Montolinia and his brothers in New Spain. Some historians believe the tradition began during Roman occupation of Spain, when elaborate festivals celebrated Roman gods and goddesses with bright bonfires on hilltops. When Santiago, or St. James the Greater— one of the original twelve disciples, brought the Christian gospel into Spain, the practice of building festival fires was given a new meaning. The fires became a reference to the hogueras, or bonfires that shepherds would light to keep themselves warm and protect their sheep from wolves—a nod to the appearance of angels on that first Noche Buena. While some of the origin details are still up for debate, Ribera-Ortega’s writing attempts to set one thing straight: “faralitos are not