Bundled-up farolito enthusiasts, hand-warming by the firelight, speed walkers, green and gold lights streaming in the trees and around various torsos: Every Christmas celebrator contributes to the stream coursing up Canyon Road, countered by the contrary movement of people pushing past shoulders in search of lost relatives. ---

We are all carpenter ants toting fajitas and Kettle Korn instead of leaves, some more like glowworms with blinking Christmas bling.

Somehow, I kidded myself that skipping out on the long underwear this time would cut it. But my nylon zipoff pants (the height of fashion) are no match for the frigid night air seeping in through every seam. It’s 5:30, and the fiery stars are already distinguishable from the dusky sky, still flaming orange and pink at its edges. My cousin Mary, visiting with her parents from Greensboro, North Carolina, and I make early farolito-lighting rounds before the night falls at around 5:00. The tenants in the 225 Canyon Road compound, where resides my mom’s shop (Leslie Flynt), are grateful for the extra help arranging brown bags and pesky sand weights, and especially with maneuvering candles on the tippy-tops of stucco walls on a barely adequate stepladder.

Our efforts are rewarded not only with generous monetary tips, but also the smiles of drivers and the awed gapes of tiny tots and red-cheeked kids in tow behind their festively attired parents. Pedestrians edging past my ladder and by me, clinging to the stone and stucco wall while hoping to avoid catching a bag on fire like the previous year, or lighting the wrong end of the votive candles lost in a mass of precarious paper: “I’ve done that before—it’s such a bitch. Good luck!”; “Well that must be a labor of love…”; “Merry Christmas!”; “You’re lighting them already? It’ll look beautiful tonight!”

Walkers ourselves now, we pass 225 and appreciate our laborious handiwork, lamenting a few candles that somehow put themselves out, enjoying the overall effect of natural, homemade electricity. Glowing cairns show the way to holiday treats, street food, pick-up banjo players dressed in Santa suits, hot cider in every other gallery, gardens and meandering labyrinths made entirely of flickering farolitos. Mary insists on a fajita from El Molero cart, looking strangely out of place parked on the curb instead of on the grass of the Plaza.

Every dozen minutes or so, shards of orange light burst above the tree branches. Paper fragments shower to the ground after soaring from their launching strip at Acequia Madre Elementary School, cheered on by spectators. Dragging ourselves away from the searing warmth of bonfires and multiple creative variations of Jingle Bells, we venture up side alleys and skid along cinder-strewn ice patches to reach the labyrinth of farolitos lighting the way to a tent pitched around the side of the elementary advertising “The Flying Farolito Project.”

Wooden bases are strung with three-cornered hats of either parchment or cloth—standing at the edge of an expectant, cloudy-breathed crowd makes it difficult to view the entire preparation process. Cameras and iPhones whip out when the lantern is carried from beneath the tiny marquee, candle and all precariously thatched together, and released. Hot air easily triumphs over the biting cold darkness; tracking the faster and faster climb of the miraculous packages almost rivals the satisfaction of hot cider, gingerbread cookies and Christmas (in both senses of the word) posole at various parties that night.

Nothing feels so satisfactory as sharing the dazzles of Christmastime in Santa Fe alongside Mary, piñon smoke wafting from log cabin-stacked bonfires, bagolitos flickering to life, evergreen garlands, guitar chords and accordions tinkling on street corners. There may not be sleigh bells or chestnuts roasting, but Santa Fe does Christmas just the way I like it.