Farolitos: An Almost Factual History

Candles burning in bags on the roof? What could go wrong?

It was Christmas Eve, 1872. The notorious outlaw Joaquín "Dusty" Faro and his gang had emptied the vault at Santa Fe's First National Bank, and were galloping toward their hideout when an avenging posse headed them off at the pass.

They were out of options. Reluctantly, they lined up their bulging loot bags along the Santa Fe Trail and set fire to them to destroy the evidence.

The posse, moved to tears by the sheer beauty of that glowing pathway on a moonless evening, dismounted and sang "Silent Night" before lynching Faro and the boys.

So when the posse returned to Santa Fe, it carried with it a new holiday tradition, naming the bags "Farolitos" in honor of the recently deceased bandit.

It turned out that the cost of incinerating bags of cash every Christmas proved prohibitive, so eventually, paper bags filled with sand and a lighted candle were substituted.

I'm afraid I can't actually verify a single word of the above story, but it just seems like such a damn fine Santa Fe yarn that if it isn't true, it ought to be. I mean, it has Christmas and desperados and trails, three of our favorite things.

If you live in Santa Fe, there is one very important thing you need to know about farolitos: Don't ever use that word in Albuquerque. Over there, farolitos are called luminarias, even though in Santa Fe luminarias are bonfires.

I know, right? Two cities 50 miles apart can't agree on what to call a frickin' candle in a bag?

The Encyclopedia of Santa Fe, by Mark H Cross, which is my bible for such stuff, says New Mexico's House of Representatives passed a measure in 1969 declaring that both words, farolito and luminaria, were okay.

Our Senate promptly countered with its own resolution, asserting that farolito is the correct word.

To give you an idea how long they've been arguing about this, 1969 was the year man landed on the moon. The debate continues.

Regardless of whether you choose to use the proper word, farolito, or the wildly incorrect and stupid Albuquerque term, luminaria, we can all agree the glowing bags are visually stunning.

One year, I decided we should have farolitos at our house. I am not at all handy. If I were given a supply of paper bags, candles and sand, I would somehow put them together all wrong.

Asking around, I was told the local Boy Scouts will come to your house and put farolitos on your roof for a modest fee.

I was never able to confirm this, which is probably just as well; I have visions of young Scouts, their merit badges ablaze, streaking down from our pitched roof like fiery meteors. That kind of thing can spoil a Christmas.

There are also electric farolitos, derisively called bagolitos. I bought two boxes of them. OMG, the folks at the Santa Fe Institute wouldn't be able to put these things together, even with that Santa Fe Science Dude helping them!

My research for this column led me to Internet accounts that were clearly very personal in nature, as residents discussed indelible childhood memories of farolitos and luminarias.

The one that really grabbed me—I swear to God I am not making this up—was from someone who remembered their father and uncles building small fires to prepare for visits by relatives. "Typically my older, male cousins who are dressed and masked to scare us," the post reads. "They carry belts and will not refrain from hitting us if we do not jump over the luminarias."

Uh-huh. Ah, the sweet, comforting memories of our childhood. Where would today's psychiatrists be without them?

So anyway, you should get into the Santa Fe Christmas spirit, put those farolitos up, and raise a glass to old Dusty Faro. Without him, who knows what the hell we would be calling them?

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