History of Luminarias


For three centuries, the Spanish villages along the Rio Grande have been displaying their unique Christmas Lanterns or Luminarias. This unique custom, which originated in the Rio Grande Valley, now appears in many parts of the world. The custom was introduced in the Novato area in 1962 by an Air Force family which had been stationed in the Rio Grande area. Since 1968, luminarias have become an annual event in the San Marin area and throughout Novato.


When the little lights that burn at Christmas are placed along roads, walks, and rooftops, the sight is beautiful. The idea was to symbolically light the way for Joseph, Mary, and the Christ Child. In the Rio Grande Valley, luminarias are also set out for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, December 12, or for a great family fiesta. In the cities and suburban areas, luminarias are sometimes used to designate the home where a grand party is given.


The first luminarias were bonfires of crisscrossed pinyon boughs built in three-foot-high squares. When colored wrapping paper was brought from the Orient, the first small paper lantern was made. The idea of burning a light or lantern was borrowed from Spain and Old Mexico, where these were used on festive occasions. Instead of hanging the fragile new lanterns from trees or on wires, they were placed on the ground, patio, walls, rooftops, and along pathways as shown in the photograph above.


In the 1820s, Yankee traders brought brown paper sacks down the Santa Fe Trail. This made the candle-sack luminarias accessible to all, and this manner of making luminarias has never been improved. The glow of the candles through the brown paper sacks on a dark night in Novato, multiplied by the thousands, is an awesome sight. Traditionally, these are lit at sundown on Christmas Eve after most other lights in and around the home have been extinguished. The warm glow on one of the darkest and longest nights of the year continues until the candles burn out, having done their job of putting extra holiday season joy in your heart.