Christmas Eve in New Mexico

Guest Post by Nancy Gerlach
Christmas Eve in New Mexico is a very special night steeped in tradition and probably no other image symbolizes the season more than the flickering lights from the brown paper bags called luminarias or farolitos, that line the walkways and outline buildings and houses throughout the state. They are only lit on December 24th and in many areas, such as the Old Town area here in Albuquerque, electric lights are turned off, motorized traffic is restricted, and people bundle up and stroll the areas and let the luminarias weave their spell.

The tradition of lighting small bonfires, called luminarias, on La Noche Buena was brought from Spain to Old Mexico in the 16th century by Franciscan monks. They were set alongside roads and churchyards to guide people to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This custom then traveled northward with the Spanish into what was to become New Mexico. Here the crisscross fires of pinon wood came to symbolize lighting the Christ child’s way on December 24th. So how did luminarias go from being small bonfires to lights in small paper bags?
By the early 19th century, sailing ships brought Chinese paper lanterns from the Philippines to the port of Veracruz in Mexico. From there, they were brought to New Mexico where, because they were easier to use, they were hung in plazas and patios and began to replace the bonfires or luminarias. But for the residents of New Mexico, who were dependent on annual trade caravans for their lanterns, they proved to be too expensive to use. As an alternative to Chinese lanterns, people began to make small paper lanterns out of paper sacks and the translucent wrapping papers that came with imported dishware. “Farolitos” is Spanish for “little lanterns” and the luminarias evolved into farolitos. In 1872, the first square-bottomed paper bag was patented in Boston and eventually they made their way to Santa Fe. These were easier to use and they quickly replaced the homemade sacks used for farolitos.

Luminarias in Old Town
Christmas Eve at our house begins with our setting out our luminarias along the roof of the house, front porch, and driveway. At dusk we light the candles and then head to Old Town, where the plaza is closed to cars, to enjoy the lights, carolers, and the good cheer of hundreds of fellow strollers. We return home to welcome friends with a buffet that always includes a traditional pot of posole.

So which is the correct nomenclature, farolitos or luminarias? They both are correct. It just depends on where you are. In Santa Fe they are called farolitos and in Albuquerque, luminarias.

And wherever you are, I wish you a Feliz Navidad and a Prospero Año Nuevo.



Posole refers to the dish as well as the main ingredient of this dish. Treating corn with lime to remove the tough skins was probably a technique the early Meso-American cultures passed on the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. The corn that is used is the same kind used to make hominy, but the processing of soaking the corn in lye imparts a different taste. This is a traditional stew that is served during the holiday season. A bowl of posole is welcoming, warming fare for “luminaria strollers” and other holiday well-wishers. Hominy corn can be substituted for the posole corn, although the taste will be different. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 3/4 cup dried posole
  • 1 pound lean pork, cut into 1 ½-inch cubes
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups pork or chicken broth
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons ground red New Mexico chile
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred
  • Salt to taste
  • Garnish: Chopped fresh cilantro, minced onions, red chile sauce (see recipe below)
  • 4 to 6 flour tortillas

In a large saucepan or stockpot, cover the posole with water and soak it overnight.  (If using canned hominy, omit this step.)

The next day, bring the water and posole to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the kernels start to become tender, 1 to 1 1/2- hours. Add more water if necessary.

In a heavy skillet, brown the pork over medium-high heat, adding a little oil if needed. When the pork is browned, add it to the posole. Add the onions to the skillet and, if needed, additional oil. Saute the onions until they turn a golden brown. Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Transfer the mixture to the stockpot with the posole.

Add the broth to the skillet, raise the heat, and deglaze, being sure to scrape all the bits and pieces from the sides and bottom. Pour the broth into the posole.

Add the chile and oregano to the stockpot and salt to taste. Bring it to just below the boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is very tender and starts to fall apart. Add more broth if necessary.

Place the garnishes in small serving bowls, ladle the stew into large soup bowls, and serve immediately with warm flour tortillas.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Mild to Medium

For more food history and recipes on the subjects of Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, just click on the image below.

AboutDave Dewitt

Dave is known in the media as "The Pope of Peppers" because of the 36 books he's written on chile peppers and spicy food around the world. He's also co-producer of the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show and editor and publisher of the Fiery Foods & Barbecue SuperSite at His latest book, with chile breeder Dr. Paul Bosland, is The Complete Chile Pepper Book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content