It’s not just the little bags themselves—ordinary small brown grocery bags filled with sand and a candle each—that inspires me this cloudy, cool December 24, although they are inspiring enough, the top edges turned down neatly…that’s the way you can tell an expert has arranged them.
It’s the sight of my neighbors placing the little bags on the sidewalks, having prepared them inside at some earlier point, planning to light the candles at dusk when the crowds descend.
How has this humble tradition survived for hundreds of years? The ritual of planting candles to light the way to church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve was brought first to Mexico by the conquistadores of evil fame, then arrived with them in southern New Mexico and spread north to the border with Colorado and now to points beyond, but the real event, the real meaning of the tradition, abides in Santa Fe, even now when after dusk Canyon Road and Acequia Madre (the mother ditch that once watered neighboring gardens) are crowded and the police have even taken to driving their frightening armored cars up and down.
Still, the farolitos continue to light the sidewalks, and strangers cluster around the luminarias—small bonfires, also a tradition—to sing the carols some of us remember from childhood, along with less familiar carols in Spanish. This was for decades a Hispanic neighborhood until swollen real estate prices (swollen by newcomers like me) drove the original owners to the soulless subdivisions south of town.
Briefly, but with lasting consequences for the good, we are all united in waiting for the coming of the light in the form of the blessed birth, or, for non-believers—if there truly are any—for the small, short-lived glow of the farolitos that seem to light the way to a more hopeful future.