The history and name debate around New Mexico’s iconic paper lanterns

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We’ve all seen the paper lanterns that line sidewalks, driveways and even rooftops, but what are they actually called?

Some New Mexicans call them luminarias, while others call them farolitos. KOB 4 did a poll and found the divide was pretty even – 53% of people calling them luminarias, 47% calling them farolitos.

New Mexico State Historian Rob Martinez says northern New Mexicans call them farolitos and they say it’s because the word “luminaria” means “bonfire”. Martinez estimates La Bajada, just south of Santa Fe, is where the switch happens.

Martinez’s family is from northern New Mexico and so he says farolitos. Meanwhile, some residents in southwest Albuquerque, for example, argue for luminaria:

“I hate to be naive, but I only know them as luminarias,” resident Aaron Frankel said.

“I don’t want to get into any kind of family feuds. We call them luminarias,” resident George Griego said.

Martinez says both sides are correct about the holiday symbol that’s become as iconic as green chile or the smell of leña firewood burning at night. No matter what you call these iconic lanterns, the symbolism never changes.

“Our tradition of farolitos and luminarias illuminates New Mexico in the darkest part of the year and the coldest part of the year,” Martinez explains. “We need that light, and we need that warmth, now more than ever.”

The lanterns mark the holidays’ arrival and their origins stem from the age-old tradition of placing lanterns or lighting small fires outside around Christmas.

“This is a universal idea that goes back centuries,” Martinez said. “As far as these little farolitos, these lanterns, we’re not sure. This is folk history.”

The Spanish, Indigenous peoples and American settlers all influenced the tradition, but the idea of using paper lanterns may have come from China, Martinez says.

“There was a lot of trade with Asia in the Spanish Empire – the Manila trade – and some of those goods and traditions were likely brought from Asia to Mexico and then made their way up the Camino Real to New Mexico,” Martinez explained.

All these different cultures influencing the tradition may have also led to the double name.

“We have to remember there’s a different language used in northern New Mexico compared to the Albuquerque area,” Martinez emphasized.

However, for most New Mexicans, the name is just a word.

“I love that they are meant to light the way,” said Maggie Klappauf, a resident in northeast Albuquerque.

“Going in the neighborhood and seeing everybody set up and all the lights on Christmas Eve are pretty spectacular,” Frankel said.

“I think it’s the start of the season, the start of the holiday season,” Griego said.

It’s truly a tradition anyone can take part in.

“We are Jewish and, for us, luminarias are just still part of the New Mexico tradition. It lights the way for the holidays in our mind,” said Melissa Frankel, a resident in southwest Albuquerque.

On Christmas Eve, one of the biggest displays of luminarias/farolitos is taking place. Although tickets are sold out for it, you can learn more about ABQ Ride’s Luminaria Tour on the event website.