The folklore dates back centuries, when the Spanish first came to the territory.
“The ladies had Japanese lanterns,” Gracie Olivas, a Santa Fe resident who’s been lighting farolitos for decades, explains. “When those burned out, they used their papers from their dishes that had been wrapped in color paper. And they had makeshift lanterns.”
Made out of paper bags, candles, and usually called luminarias elsewhere, farolitos are meant to symbolize the lights used during Mary and Joseph’s search for a posada, or inn, in Bethlehem.
Canyon Road, of course, isn’t the only place to see them in Santa Fe.
Olivas shies away from the event because, for one, she prefers candle farolitos to electric luminaries. “They do not have the warmth—there is a big difference,” she points out. It’s also become too much of a spectacle for her.
“It’s very nice for the tourists and the other people in town to come up here to do the Farolito Walk,” Olivas says. “But for the older people in this area, we’re inconvenienced because we can’t get anywhere on Christmas Eve.”
Instead, she and her neighbors light their own farolitos and stage their own walk on San Antonio Street near Acequia Madre. At 80, Olivas still places more than 100 farolitos outside her home on Christmas Eve.
“It’s part of our Hispanic tradition,” she says. Flying farolitos—which are giant luminaries that launch into the sky when lit—offer another alternative to the Canyon Road walk. Like their grounded counterpart, flying farolitos are made of tissue paper and candles. Their main difference is that the tissue is folded into a giant tetrahedron with an opening on the bottom.
A Styrofoam strip with roughly 36 lit wax candles is placed in the opening, launching the farolito upwards. After five minutes or so of flying in the sky, the fire consumes and disintegrates the farolito while it’s still in the air.
Arvo Thomson, a German transplant who’s lived in New Mexico for 30 years, first saw the flying luminaries in the mid-1980s in New Zealand. By the end of the decade, he started launching his own in Santa Fe. Now, he puts the show on every Christmas Eve at Acequia Madre Middle School for hundreds of spectators.
Well, almost every Christmas Eve. Thomson, who lives near Chama, recalls not being able to do the show a few years ago when he was snowed-in from his home and couldn’t make the drive. Last year, he was unable to obtain a permit from the Santa Fe Fire Department.
“It was bone-dry two weeks before Christmas,” Thomson says of why he couldn’t get a permit.
Snow then hit Santa Fe a few days before Christmas and added moisture to the thirsty ground. Thomson then says he left messages with the Fire Department that went unreturned. Ultimately, he kept the show canceled.
“I felt bad,” he tells SFR. “I know people go with their kids and want to see it.”
Thomson didn’t have a permit for this year as of press time, but he says he’s planning to get one. He adds that the work involved with running the spectacle is starting to get to him and that he would like to see the flying farolito tradition put “on a more permanent footing” with the city.
He hopes others will help him realize this. “That’s all I do for Christmas,” he says. “I don’t give gifts to anybody. This is just my one and only contribution, and whoever wants it can have it.”
Check one of Thomson's flying farolitos in action: