In New Mexico, it is referred to as the great debate, farolito or luminaria. This is all in reference as to what to call the paper bags lit by candles that adorn homes during the Christmas season.
Using the actual definition of the word, if luminarias were to be lit in the city and line the streets, massive bonfires would be a blaze. However, within the last sixty years in some parts of New Mexico, that word has been transformed to refer to something else, farolitos.
“The farolitos are the candles inside of a bag,” said Damian Wilson, Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of New Mexico. “But a luminaria is a stack of wood where you stack it, two by two to create sort of a tower…”
By definition, the root word, farol is a lantern, therefore a small lantern would be a farolito. So why call a little lantern a bonfire? There’s still strong debate exactly where or how the term transformed.
“It’s kind of what people call farolitos in Albuquerque, it’s not wrong it’s just a practice,” said Enrique Lamadrid, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Spanish at the University of New Mexico.
While this may never squash the debate, by definition, there is a correct term and an in-correct term. However, as with many things in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment is an assortment of many areas. This leads language experts to diagnose the mix-up as a regional matter.
Meanwhile, the Luminaria Tour remains one of the most popular activities of the season in Albuquerque. For years, buses have taken locals and visitors to designated neighborhoods around the Duke City to view the paper bags filled with sand and candles as they light up streets and building tops, but the name itself may be misleading to some…
“Luminarias, we always save the very special firewood for luminarias,” said Lamadrid. “It’s stacked, a little stack in squares, it’s laid up on squares and the average height can be three, three and a half feet.”
Did he just say firewood squares stacked three feet high? That’s right, officially in the Spanish language, a luminaria is actually a bonfire. The traditions of which tie in with Christmas celebrations in the northern part of the state.
“So typically when we are doing posadas it’s very cold and it will be a house in Northern New Mexico that has the way to the entrance of the house lit up with both farolitos in the small bags and luminarias which are big roaring fires that are at a safe, but near distance to the house so that the people who are enacting las posadas will be kept warm,” says Wilson.