December 2016

Luminarias or Farolitos?

A Vignette from “Elvis Romero and the Cosmic White Corvette”


Andrew Lovato

Part six of an intermittent series


When the aspen leaves turned yellow and the mountain peaks wore a mantle of white, Elvis knew the change of seasons was upon him. As December approached, the days became shorter and the sun sank earlier behind the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A cold nip was in the morning air, and it wouldn’t be long before the first light snow blanketed Santa Fe and transformed the city into the inside of a Christmas ornament that glittered with snowflakes when you shook it.


The beginning of winter meant that Christmas was fast approaching. This stirred up great excitement in the Romero family. Preparations began weeks in advance. Food was the most discussed topic of conversation leading up to the big day. Elvis’ mother and sisters began networking soon after Thanksgiving, deciding on who was preparing the biscochitos, empanaditas, panocha and other goodies for the platillos Nativos (Christmas foods).


There was one aspect of the Christmas gathering that was never in doubt. The location always had been and would continue to be at Grandma López’s house. Evelyn’s mother’s little adobe on Agua Fria Street was much too small to accommodate the growing clan. Several other locations would have been much more practical, but no one ever dared approach the topic with her. It was understood that María López was the epicenter of the holiday celebrations. Like a good daughter, Evelyn never questioned the Christmas hierarchy.


Elvis’ last days of school rushed by before the holidays; he looked forward to a whole month of vacation. All the kids were excited as they filled their classrooms with construction paper decorations, and the fifth- and sixth-graders rehearsed a Christmas play that would be performed for the whole community. On the last day before the Christmas break, every classroom had a party, and students exchanged humble gifts and handmade cards. They sang Christmas carols like Noche de Paz (Silent Night) and Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful). The day ended with the breaking of the traditional Christmas piñata and a treat of biscochitos and hot chocolate before everyone headed home.


Elvis left school in the late afternoon with his heart and belly full, and the whole town was transformed. Farolitos seemed to magically spring up everywhere. Walls and rooftops glowed with the warm light of candles burning in paper bags filled with sand. Every downtown portal post was wrapped with green fresh evergreen garlands, and the Plaza was lit up with bright Christmas lights of all colors. He trudged through the heavy snow marveling at Santa Fe’s rebirth into a winter wonderland. All of the adobe buildings were layered with soft, white flakes.


The next morning was Christmas Eve, and it was filled with brilliant sunshine after a storm had passed overnight. Everyone was excited and preparations were in full swing. The Romeros were hard at work preparing for Christmas at grandma’s house. Everyone was busy preparing food, setting up the Christmas tree and getting everything ready for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. At dusk the family came together to go on their annual farolito walk. 


As soon as the sun set, they made their way to Cristo Rey Church where a beautiful Las Posadas portrayed Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus sleeping in a manger. The roles of Mary and Joseph were performed by church members dressed up in their personal renditions of humble attire. The baby Jesus was only a doll because the cold temperature made using a real infant impossible. However, church members were able to scrounge up a live donkey, which added an air of authenticity to the presentation. Father Martínez gave a brief sermon in front of the Posada and this was followed by the choir singing novellas accompanied by the freezing fingers of a trio of guitar players.


Elvis and his cousins lingered by the Posada for a while, bundled up against the night as their breath escaped in white puffs. Eventually, the clan began to stroll toward Canyon Road. They walked down the brilliantly lit street, filled with the glow of farolitos and luminarias.


Every year Elvis’ mom and dad had the same debate during the journey. They could never agree as to what a farolito or a luminaria really was. Gilbert contended that farolito was the proper name for the candles that were lit inside small, brown paper bags partially filled with sand. The glow of these bags was awe-inspiring when they lined the streets and rooftops of downtown Santa Fe. Luminarias, he insisted, were the bonfires that Christmas Eve walkers stopped by to warm their hands and feet and to drink hot cider near. These were lit by homeowners who considered it their duty to comfort their holiday guests.


Evelyn disagreed adamantly, claiming that the opposite was true: the glowing paper bags were luminarias and the bonfires were farolitos. This argument raged on year after year and the question was never settled, but despite their disagreement, they had a wonderful time, meeting old friends and singing carols. Elvis and Angelo followed behind the grown-ups, their eyes shining with the light of the blazing embers.


Christmas Eve was capped with a Midnight Mass at St. Francis Cathedral. The beautiful stone church overflowed with worshippers, filling every pew. Angelo fell asleep in his mother’s arms before the mass even began. A large choir sang inspiring hymns and Father Martínez performed the Christmas service for the gathered faithful. This was when Elvis invariably began to feel overwhelmed by the sights and sounds around him. His head would start spinning, and the singing combined with Father Martínez’s voice trailed away into faint echoes as he laid his head down on the backrest of the hard wooden pew and drifted away. Every year he vowed that he‘d make it through the whole mass and every year he failed.


When the family got together on Christmas Day, the scene was amazing. There was an endless supply of laughing, hugging and food. Everyone marveled at how tall the kids were getting and there was loud Mariachi music blasting from the record player. Elvis and Angelo ran around the outskirts of the activity with their countless cousins. They laughed and screeched at the top of their lungs until they dropped down on the rug from sheer exhaustion. There was plenty of posole, tamales, menudo, sopa, chili rellenos, chicos, panocha, and empanaditas to enjoy, and finally everyone surrendered to the cooks and had to refuse even one more bite. Life was good.


No one in Elvis’ family was particularly well off, and so the gifts that were exchanged were mostly handmade or came in the form of food offerings. A typical gift might be a bag of apples, a plate of biscochitos, a jar of green chile jam, or a bag of piñón nuts. The most important thing was not to forget anyone.


Some of the more creative members of the family like Tía Lucinda came up with outrageous handmade gifts. Lucinda had an uncanny talent for taking pinecones and bringing them to life by gluing on stick arms and legs, adding grass for hair, and attaching button eyes and noses. She created the most hilarious likenesses of people that she unveiled on Christmas Day. Everyone found her caricatures uproariously funny and her gifts were always a big hit.


An unforgettable example was a pinecone with a paperclip fashioned into wire-rimmed glasses and tufts of yarn wrapped around the ears, leaving a pronounced bald spot on top.

“Guess who this is?”  Everyone laughed until tears ran down their cheeks because it looked just like Uncle Antonio, and when he was presented with his likeness, he posed with it while flashbulbs went off, preserving the scene for posterity.


Sometimes Christmas gifts came in the form of labor. For instance, an uncle would present his brother’s family with a cord of chopped wood or someone might offer to rebuild a carburetor. No matter what resources anyone had, the gift exchanges were heartfelt, and when the family was gathered around the fresh-cut evergreen tree in Elvis’ grandparent’s warm home, the expressions of joy were of equal intensity no matter what size of gift. Even the children were expected to present offerings and they often came up with Christmas drawings, poems, or handmade Ojos de Dios or “God’s Eyes,” made of sticks and colorful yarn woven in diamond-shaped designs.



Through his writings, native Santa Fean Andrew Lovato, Ph.D., walks readers through an exploration of Hispanic and New Mexico cultures of yesterday and today. An associate professor at Santa Fe Community College, Lovato is the author of Santa Fe Hispanic Culture: Preserving Identity in a Tourist Town; The Year Zozobra Escaped: Featuring Zozobra’s Great Escape; and a contributing author of four other books.


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