Christmas Luminaries

A popular Spanish Christmas decoration

Originally a tradition within the Hispanic community, luminarias (Spanish for "small bonfires") are spreading in popularity. The custom of lighting luminarias in the U.S. (particularly in the Southwest) was introduced to Mexican Indians by Spanish missionaries. These beautiful little lanterns are lit for nine consecutive nights beginning December 16th. These nine days represent the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and their search for lodgings when they arrive in town. It also represents the lighting of the way for Christ's birth and his "illumination of the spirit."

The lighting of luminarias culminates on Christmas Eve with the night of Las Posadas (night of "the lodging" or "the inn"); a celebration of Christ's birth. On Christmas Eve, luminarias are lined along the walkways of churches to guide families to Midnight Mass.

Today luminarias are found in many neighborhoods. It's not uncommon to find them lining driveways and entire stretches of sidewalk. The more common versions of luminarias are made of paper bags, sand and votive (or tea) candles. Simply fill the bottom quarter of the bag with sand, place the candle in the sand and light the candle - voila!The paper bag versions are best suited to warm locales with relatively calm winds. For those who live in cold, snowy, windy climates, try using tin cans, mason jars or small fish bowls instead of the paper bags.

To make a tin can luminaria

  1. Fill the tin can with water and place it in freezer (or outside) to freeze. Freezing the water makes it easier to punch holes into the can without denting it.

  2. Use a hammer and nail and punch small holes into the can. The small holes can be arranged into patterns of lines, stars, Christmas trees, etc. Make sure the holes are kept within the top ¾ of the can.

  3. Fill the bottom ¼ of the can with sand.

  4. Place a votive or tea candle into the sand.

  5. Light the candle and enjoy your luminaria!

The mason jar and small fish bowl versions are essentially the same:

  1. Cut out shapes of stars, candy canes, snowmen, etc.

  2. Either glue or tape the shapes to the outside of the mason jar or fish bowl. Keep the shapes within the top ¾ of the jar/bowl. Make sure the shapes can be easily removed after the jar/bowl has been spray painted.

  3. Spray the entire outside of the jar/bowl with white frost spray paint.

  4. When the spray paint is dry, carefully peel off the shapes.

  5. Fill the bottom ¼ of the jar/bowl with sand.

  6. Place a votive or tea candle in the sand.

  7. Done! Light and enjoy.
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