Christmas, which includes farolitos and luminarias, is important to me because the tradition has been a part of my life for at least 50 years. My first recollection of this tradition is when I lived on East Manhattan Avenue at my parents home, which originally was part of the Candido Herrera Family compound. Santa Fe back then was really different and special because I lived in a neighborhood which consisted of family members who were part of the Garcia Family which my paternal grandmother was a part of.
Back in the '50s and early '60s it snowed daily—or so it seemed. There was so much snow that we had piles if it in the gardens and driveways that lasted until spring. Back then people burned piñón wood to heat their homes whereas now, people burn piñón for the ambiance and wonderful smell that permeates the air. Combined with the snow, it was a special scene that has remained with me all these years.
My older sister, who was a Poor Clare Nun in the late '50s, gave me a Nativity set which became a focal point in my Christmas decorating on my front porch. The set consisted of Jesus, Mary and Joseph along with the Three Kings which I constructed out of papier mâché. I also constructed a stable that was displayed on the front porch and I began using farolitos to line the walkway leading to the street and also on the roof of the house.
At this time, after graduating from high school, I worked for Bob Rogers Interiors. My first job with them was to rock in the hill where the original Cross of the Martyrs is located off the Old Taos Highway. My boss bought a paper cutout of the whole Nativity scene that we glued onto plywood and cutout. We set up a stable with the Nativity on the hill in front of the Cross and had farolitos all around. When I left the Rogers, I acquired the cutouts and by this time I had built my own home on Hillside Avenue where I have resided for 45 years and have used this display since.
I first started using farolitos and luminarias on my own home until the 1980s when we as a neighborhood were fighting a development (Estancia Primera) above us which threatened flooding to our area. In order to unite my neighborhood I got the idea to line Hillside with farolitos as a way to meet and form a Neighborhood Association. The first years were difficult because I had to get people involved, so my family would do most of it. I would go house to house and take candles and bags and provide sand and still there was little cooperation. My neighbor, Jo Glicksberg, ran La Fonda's gift shop and always provided the bags for us. We always coordinated the farolitos from my backyard. After so may years of doing the farolitos, the technique has improved. Now there are captains in the different parts of the neighborhood who handle their sections.
Our Hillside display involves donations from neighbors to purchase bags and candles which can cost up to $800. The volunteers meet at my home by noon on Christmas Eve. We start filling bags which have been folded by volunteers. Some of our volunteers are former neighbors that come back every year to help because they still feel like part of the neighborhood and they want to make the event a success. We have a team that fills the bags with sand and another that set them up on each side of the streets. The lighting of the farolitos begins around 4 pm on Christmas Eve.
My Nativity scene and the lights that I put up have been one of the focal points in the neighborhood. People have been coming to my house for over 30 years for the spiritual part of Christmas. I have also placed a 12-foot cross on the top of the hill behind my house which is lit for the holidays as a gift from me to the community. I also have luminarias in front of the Nativity scene to represent the Three Kings. To clear up a mistake made by many people (especially from Albuquerque), farolitos traditionally are lanterns which are represented by the bags with candles and luminarias are bonfires.
The setup at my house usually takes me two weekends to complete. Last year I added some new laser lights that have added additional beauty and made it easier for me since I no longer have to string lights on the trees. For years I have done both a traditional Nativity scene display and also a more contemporary side which is my Dad's 1948 GMC outlined with colored lights with my 40-year-old stuffed Santa sitting in the driver's seat. The nicho carved into the hillside and the carport and piñón trees in front are also decorated.
The reward for all this work is greeting old friends and making new ones. People standing around the luminarias enjoying the warmth, singing Christmas carols, standing around talking and enjoying the beauty of the night.
Ray Herrera is a lifelong Santa Fean. Read more about him here.