Rumor has it that it’s the most wonderful time of the year. I couldn’t agree more.
You can keep your ornate displays of high-watt outdoor bulbs, your blow-up santas and penguins, your animatronic lowing cattle and rooftop reindeer a-tromping. Save your LEDs, your candy canes, even your wreaths. Late December means just one thing to me: luminarias.
It’s hard to put into words just what exactly is so magical about luminarias for me, since it’s really a combination of things. And every year or two, I’ve made another pass at trying to really explain it. If you want the best visual chronicle of the finished results of the display, you can refer to my 2010 post on the then-record 772-lumi display I did that year. My elation at setting a then-record previously, in 2008, is discussed here, which is mostly just a testament to the combination of exhaustion and triumph that comes with putting one of these displays together. And I did some of my most elegant, if briefest writing on the phenomenon in 2012, before the worst year in the last four, when wind pretty much wiped out the neighborhood’s display and destroyed my roof efforts and most of the rest.
But perhaps the greatest accomplishment I’ve notched as a luminarian (luminaire? lumineer?) was getting on KRQE 13 (local news) last year, in this story:
That was my new all-time record of 850. And I’m really considering making good on my wild proposal of over 1,000 this year. After all, part of the point of keeping track of all these records is to give myself something to beat the next season. And for the first time in many years, my parents aren’t protesting, aren’t worried I’m overdoing it, aren’t asking me to scale down a little bit or take it easy. They’re all in for a record-setting display.
So I’ve gotten ready. I’ve officially picked up the first 100 bags of the season with nine days to go.
What is a luminaria? At its simplest, most basic level, it is a lit votive candle inside a sandwich bag, with a little bit of sand at the bottom. That’s it, that’s all there is. And indeed, that itself is one of the most cherished and lovable things about luminarias: their basic simplicity. This is fundamentally a democratic tradition, a poor person’s tradition, as it started in one of the consistently poorest parts of the country. It uses simple materials, each humble in their origins, but combines to make something bright and magical and uniting. Kind of like the best spirit of Christmas itself.
They’re widely accessible. In many neighborhoods of Albuquerque and, I hear, increasingly other cities of the southwest, they are almost universal on paths and walkways, creating an overall communal display that is generally consistent, in theme if not in quantity or quality. And in an era where everything is electric and electronic and bigger and brighter, the simplicity of the subtle flicker of muted candlelight, ‘neath extinguished streetlights and darkened car traffic, makes Christmas Eve a night where people are removed from their own time and transported back to a quieter, darker, slower age. They are best viewed by walking for just this reason, though hordes of buses are toured through the most ardently participatory neighborhoods of Albuquerque, as well as car traffic after a certain hour, with parking lights or less on. There are also all manner of conveyances, as people come through on bikes, horses, horse-drawn carts, and multi-wheeled person-powered contraptions, most of them adorned with small little Christmas lights or other decorations. People greet each other and pause at their favorite displays and warm up by firepits sometimes placed outside.
Last year, we debuted a firepit to go with the massive display that adorned not only the sidewalk and front-yard paths, but fences, gates, rooftops, inner courtyard, and even trees. I have always loved sitting back in the shadows of the front porch and hearing breathy appreciations come across the frosty night air when people see my displays, but nothing prepared me for the thanks my family and I would get when we actually stood outside to tend a firepit and meet many of the visitors. It’s the west, so people just come up and say hi and warm themselves, all but the very shyest who have to be cajoled. And it’s the west on Christmas, so conversations were frequent and often lengthy, always punctuated with encouragement and wonder. I’ve certainly never done these displays for the thanks of the people, though they are, like any public decoration or display, predominantly for the enjoyment of others. And in a deep and dark December when my family desperately needed some acknowledgement and hope, last year’s Christmas Eve shone like a lighthouse beacon across the roiling sea.
Hopefully, the firepit will be back this year. Alex will be there for Christmas Eve itself… she’s helped a lot with bags in the past, but never has been there for layout or actually doing the display, let alone seeing the entire neighborhood. And as I’ve told her, as I tell you now, like so many jewels of the southwest (the Grand Canyon springs to mind), luminarias really need to be seen live to be truly understood. Still or even moving pictures capture a hint of their glory, but only a small hint. The scale, the flicker, the spirit that haunts the candlelit streets and bag-lined lanes really requires a human presence. No amount of bombardment of images, direct or conjured through words, is going to do the real magic justice.
KRQE will be back too, doing an earlier story on creating the luminarias and setting up the display. I’ve long wanted to do a kind of how-to or even some kind of timelapse video of me constructing the whole display. Maybe I’ll attempt that this year, if I have the energy and pace myself properly. Exhaustion is always a factor in these things, though the years have made me more adept at timing, when to take breaks, how to cut down on lighting time, when to start lighting, and a hundred other little subtleties of the practice. Doing the display in the same place year after year helps too, though my Dad’s constant tweaks and improvements on the house he’s made a 15-year masterpiece always keep me guessing.
The project is several parts obsession, a handful of tradition, a dash of pride, a spot of creativity, and a whole boatload of excitement. Even now, just contemplating the hours of work ahead on carefully folding the lip of the bags, scooping sand into each one, plopping a candle therein, and then laying them out with exact spacing and precision, lighting them all, and seeing the display, I am giddy. Few things in this life get me so elated, so heart-racey with anticipation. And unlike so many highly-anticipated things, the end result is even better than the looking forward.
Nine days of magic, starting tomorrow. I can’t wait.