Luminarias or Farolitos – What’s the Difference?

Farolitos or Luminarias?  Fun fact time!

This question almost rivals the state question of red or green. At this time of year, it’s the question most frequently asked in Santa Fe.

On Christmas Eve, candlelights in small bags line the streets and houses in New Mexico. The words, farolitos and luminarias, are often interchangeably used in the state to name the lights, which are constructed of a brown paper bag (think of your sack lunch), sand (to weigh the bag down and hold the candle in place), and a votive or tea candle. The lights are placed in lines and rows on the ground, along streets and sidewalks, around plazas, and on porches, parapets, porticos, and the flat rooftops in New Mexico.



In a land which has had a large Catholic population, these lights traditionally have had a religious, symbolic significance for lighting the way of the Holy Family on Christmas Eve, also known as Las Posadas. The lights have been adopted in other places, and sometimes have been replaced by strings of plastic sacks and electric bulbs.

In Santa Fe and elsewhere in northern New Mexico, there is a long-held distinction between farolito, meaning one of these paper lights, and luminaria, meaning a small vigil fire or bonfire.

Farolito is a local word based on the Spanish word for lantern, “farol,” a word that may also be used loosely to describe a streetlamp.

The bonfire is traditionally constructed of fragrant piñon branches criss-crossed and stacked like a small box. The small bonfire may be used to mark a home hosting Las Posadas, the neighborhood re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem (a posada is an inn) which takes place each night for nine nights before Christmas. It generally includes singing, praying, and food. Luminarias is the word used in Santa Fe for the bonfires found around the Canyon Road neighborhood on Christmas Eve. It is said, too, that these luminarias were originally used to light the way to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Either luminarias or farolitos may also describe the candlelights used in the procession of Las Posadas.



Luminaria doesn’t mean bonfire, per se. In Spanish, luminaria means a light or an illumination (la luz is the light), and there are other Spanish words used to describe bonfires.

In Albuquerque, the candle-lit lights protected in paper bags, lining Old Town and the adjacent neighborhoods in the thousands, are still best known as luminarias. Luminarias appears to be the word used most often to describe the paper lights in other parts of the country which have adopted them and to describe festival lights in other countries.



It is an ongoing, sometimes contentious, usually light-hearted, debate. While there is a belief that the words are synonymous, there is also a belief that the words divide the state geographically, with farolito prevailing in the northern part of New Mexico and luminaria prevailing in the southern part of New Mexico.






Bunny Terry 505.504.1101

20 Vereda Serena Santa Fe, NM 87508