Luminarias: A Southwest Tradition Expanded

In the Southwestern United States, a common holiday decorating tradition is the luminaria. The tradition derives from an earlier custom of Native Americans lighting bonfires in front of each house in a pueblo in celebration of Christmas. More recently, it is common throughout the entire country to see whole neighborhoods decorated with luminarias, possibly because they are simple to make and the materials don’t cost much at all.

To make your own holiday luminarias, start with several brown paper bags; lunch bags work the best and are often available in packs of 25 for just a couple of dollars. The number of bags you will need will depend on where you are going to set up your display. For a small area such as the base of a tree you won’t probably need more than one 25-count package of lunch sacks. To outline your walkway, more will be needed.

Fold the tops of the bags down about an inch to make them sturdier then fill the bags with about two inches of sand or clean kitty litter. This will make them heavier and less likely to blow over in a gust of wind. From this step you have a couple of options, and the one you choose will depend a lot on how much time you want to spend maintaining your luminarias.

One option, which requires daily maintenance, is tea lights. Nestle a small tea light candle in the sand in the bottom of the bag and light the candle. You will have to light the candles every night and blow them out for safety purposes, as well as checking each candle to make sure that it still has enough wax to continue burning.

If you are not looking to spend a lot of time on your dÃ?©cor, you can punch a small hole in the bottom of the bag and thread white indoor/outdoor Christmas lights through the holes. For this option, less sand will be needed to anchor the bags, and even small stones can be used. However you choose to anchor the bag, be sure that you don’t bury the light bulb.

If you want to add a little extra flare to your bags, you can cut out holiday themed pictures and place translucent paper behind them, securing the paper with a glue stick. Colored paper will make the light showing through the bag come out colored; green and red, of course, are popular colors for luminaria cutouts at Christmas time. Orange is popular for Halloween cutouts and red or pink for Valentine’s Day, since these simple decorations are becoming popular at more times than just Christmas.
More detailed cutouts; snowflakes, trees, wreathes; are going to stand out and look more elegant than simple cutouts like snowmen or crosses, but you are not bound by these or any other rules when it comes to what to cut out of the bags. One bit of advice when choosing your cutout, don’t eliminate too much of the structure of the bag or it won’t stand freely. Also, keeping the cutout an inch or two from the bottom of the bag will keep the sand from leaking out through any possible holes in the cutout.

Another variation on the cutouts is to use a large, darning needle or small nail to make pictures in the sides of the bag. Rather than cutting out the whole design of a snowflake, simply make small holes along the outline of the snowflake. Less light shows through the pinprick holes but, of course, sometimes less is more.

Spraying the outside of the bags with an acid-free, clear lacquer or low-gloss spray acrylic will help to protect your luminarias against the elements and keep them preserved for several uses. In fact, unless they get saturated with water or snow, the lacquer will keep them preserved indefinitely.

Your luminarias need not only decorate the outside of your home. Surround them with a wreath and pinecones for a centerpiece at your holiday table. Use a hot glue gun and adhere holly berries and holly leaves to the tops of smaller bags to make individual sized luminarias for each of your holiday guests to take home with them. Cut out letters and dates, such as Grandpa Frank 1920-2005, to memorialize a friend or family member who has passed on over the past year.

The possibilities for your luminaria project are endless. Anywhere you can think to put them, anything you can think of to do with them is possible. Have fun with them and enjoy the beautiful lights.

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