A luminaria or farolito (see naming disagreement section below) is a small paper lantern (commonly a candle set in some sand inside a paper bag) which is of significance in the US state of New Mexico in southwest United States at Christmas time, especially on Christmas Eve. These paper lanterns have to some extent replaced the older tradition of the vigil fire luminaria with which they became confused.
Yet another form of luminaria, a small torch or large candle, is carried by the leader of the procession of Las Posadas, a nine-day holiday running December 16–24.
Electrically-lit luminarias are also used, consisting of a string of standard incandescent "Christmas lights" with the bulbs covered with a tan plastic sleeve, made to about the size and shape of a small paper bag.
Traditional Christmas Eve luminarias are said to originate from Spaniard merchants. They were impressed with the Paper lanterns from the Chinese culture and decided to make their own version when they returned to New Spain; particularly during the Christmas season. They decided to use more "hearty" materials. Traditionally, luminarias are made from brown paper bags weighted down with sand and illuminated from within by a lit candle. These are typically arranged in rows to create large and elaborate displays. The hope among Roman Catholics is that the lights will guide the spirit of the Christ child to one's home.
In recent times they are seen more as a secular decoration, akin to Christmas lights. Strings of artificial luminarias, with plastic bags illuminated by small light bulbs and connected by an electrical cord, are also available, and are common in the American Southwest, where they are typically displayed throughout the year-end holiday season. These are beginning to gain popularity in other parts of the United States.
Santa Fe and Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico, are well known for their impressive Christmas Eve farolito displays. Farolito displays are common throughout New Mexico, and most communities in New Mexico have farolitos in prominent areas such as major streets or parks. Residents often line their yards, fences, sidewalks, and roofs with farolitos. Similar traditions can now also be found in many other parts of the nation.
In West Valley City, Utah, luminarias are used to light the path during the Walk with Santa held the first Monday of December every year. The display features over 300 luminarias.
The American Cancer Society's Relay for Life fundraising events which are held all over the US feature luminaria ceremonies. Luminarias are placed around the track and some relay events spell out "HOPE" in stadium stands with luminarias.
After the 2008 city hall shooting in Kirkwood, Missouri, residents lined the streets with luminarias to honor the victims of the shooting.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Out of the Darkness Overnight uses luminarias at the end of the overnight walk to memorialize those lost to suicide for survivors.
San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, organizes a large annual farolito display, most recently consisting of around 30,000 farolitos displayed on campus.
Luminarias have also become popular in California in some cities. The Boy Scout Troops and Albuquerque Youth Symphony sell them around Christmas time as another form of fundraising.
In Galena, Ill. luminarias line the streets of the town one night in December for their annual "Night of Luminaria."
Each year for the past 22 years community members have placed luminaria along the path beside Lake Washington north of Seward Park. They place as many as 1800 along a three-mile stretch of the path. The placement of the luminaria are timed to coincide with the annual Christmas Ships festival organized by Argosy Cruises.
In Midlothian, Ill. luminaria sets are sold to raise money for the local food pantries. About 75% of the food pantries annual budget comes from these luminaria sales and donations.
In some Southwestern states, such as Arizona and Texas as well as New Mexico, luminarias are also occasionally used as Halloween decorations, sometimes featuring jack o' lantern faces drawn on the paper bags. Artificial luminarias are increasingly available with holiday themed decorative patterns and in colors other than brown.
The name of the decoration is the subject of a long-running item of contention among some New Mexicans. In general, farolito is the preferred term in northern New Mexico, while the decorations are often referred to as luminarias in the southern part of the state; The central part around Albuquerque is mixed. In Spanish, the word farolito translates as "little lantern", while luminaria means "festival light". Historically luminaria referred not to a paper lantern but to a small festival or vigil bonfire; however, this distinction is not commonly made outside of northern New Mexico. New Mexico traditionalists insist that the use of luminaria to mean a paper lantern is not proper. Farolitos may be referred to as "luminarias" by some, but on Christmas Eve, when the farolitos are lit in Santa Fe, luminarias (Posada vigil fires) are burning in the small mountain villages of Northern New Mexico. Luminaria bonfires made of square, stacked piñon and juniper wood can often can be seen in towns and pueblos across northern New Mexico. In the mountain villages and by the roadways they are built by local residents to welcome visitors and to commemorate holiday activities.