Winter is the time for fires in New Mexico. Before gas lanterns and electricity, people customarily built luminarias or bonfires to illuminate the plazas during winter processions, as they still do at Ohkay Owingeh or Taos Pueblo on Christmas Eve. Luminaria, therefore, is indeed an apt name for designating and celebrating those individuals in our communities who, through their devotion and service to others, light the way for many people as they make their way through an oftentimes difficult and bewildering world.
Frequently confused are the two terms, luminarias and farolitos, which translates as lanterns, or in northern New Mexico, a grocery bag with a lit candle inside used to illuminate the “pathways for each of the proverbial three wise men” outside of people’s homes. Much of the confusion comes from the fact that the Spanish speakers of the north and south of New Mexico use the two terms in exactly the opposite way, and thus, there can never be any agreement in how the terms should be used. What is agreed upon by all, however, is that fire and the light and warmth that it gives off are essential to our lives, for without fire most of our cultural attainments, including delectable cuisines, pottery and metallurgy would not exist. Part mystery and partly explained by science as an ongoing chemical reaction fed by fuel, fire has fascinated human beings since the beginning of time, not only because of its heat and light, but because fire transforms all that it touches.
In fact, in many cultures it was believed that human beings had something akin to fire burning within their bodies and that when that fire burned out, the person expired. Other cultures have equated fire to passion or depth of feeling, such as the “fires of love” or the “fires of devotion” that humans may feel for another person or a particular cause.
What seems to be certain in our case here in New Mexico is that those selected as Luminarias by the New Mexico Community Foundation for their exemplary work on behalf of others burn with the fire of love for their communities and for this extraordinary and deeply enchanting place that we call New Mexico.