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Posted on Fri, Dec 24, 2010 : 6:30 a.m.

Hometown holiday traditions: Las Posadas and luminarias

By Pam Stout


Photo by Flickr user Chris Runoff

This year my family will be celebrating a storybook-style Christmas in the north woods of Wisconsin. We're almost guaranteed to have a fresh blanket of snow, a hand-cut tree from the forest, and chestnuts roasting on the wood stove.

Growing up in southern New Mexico, this kind of holiday was something I could only imagine through caroling and story books. I couldn't wait to live in a place where I could experience a "real" Christmas like the media told me I should.

I didn't appreciate my New Mexico heritage nearly enough as a child, but today I yearn for a couple of hometown holiday traditions around Christmas Eve: Las Posadas and luminarias.

Las Posadas (meaning "the inns") is a re-enactment of the quest of the Biblical Mary and Joseph to find a place for the birth of Jesus. Typically, neighborhood pilgrims (peregrinos), led by Mary, Joseph, and sometimes a donkey, parade from house to house requesting shelter for the night through a special song.

Door after door, the pilgrims are refused lodging until they reach the fiesta location, where they are finally welcomed with prayer, food and a piñata. According to Wikipedia, las posadas traditionally go on for nine nights, finishing on Dec. 24 with a trek to midnight mass.

I never participated in a full nine-evening Posadas myself, but I loved the parties, the parades and the embrace of this Hispanic cultural tradition in my American town. While I wasn't part of the Catholic community that performed the Posadas, I grew to appreciate the beauty of the spectacle and its symbolism: open hospitality for the lonely, the needy and the downtrodden.

Luminarias are another tradition my heart pines for on Christmas Eve. I think some folks here call them "luminaries," but to me that sounds like "MackiNACK" would to a Michiganian. These paper bag lanterns lined the streets, sidewalks and flat roofs of homes on Christmas Eve to, according to tradition, light the way for the Christ child.

Sometimes my friends and I charged a dollar a dozen to prepare luminarias for the whole neighborhood on Christmas Eve. We'd set up an assembly line folding the tops of paper bags and filling them with an inch or two of sand. Then we would fill up our wheelbarrows and line the bags carefully down the street. The best part was the precarious task of lighting the candles at dusk without setting fire to the bag.

The glow of the candlelit luminarias was something special, only reserved for one night a year. We would walk or drive through the best neighborhoods with lights out and a hush of peace in the air.

When I moved to Michigan, my family sent me a string of electric luminarias to line my sidewalk, but it just didn't fit the landscape. I knew we would have to adopt or create our own traditions in my new hometown, and we have.

But I still have the urge to fold down the tops of our lunchbags and light a candle inside sometimes.

What about you? What hometown holiday traditions do you miss — or have you adopted?

Pam Stout coordinates Faith & Home & Garden coverage for She can be reached at



Tue, Dec 28, 2010 : 1:46 p.m.

For many years, St. Joseph's in Dexter put out luminarias along the sidewalks. I don't know if this is still being done since the building of the new church on North Territorial Rd.

Ann Arbor Mom

Mon, Dec 27, 2010 : 10:57 a.m.

It is a 10 year tradition on our street. Many of the homes on two blocks of our street line their front property with luminaries on Christmas Eve. Each year one or two more join. It's really lovely to see. One very generous family coordinates it and buys and bags the sand. Their home and ours are pick-up locations.


Sat, Dec 25, 2010 : 12:19 a.m.

Luminaries out on Cherry Hill Road tonight from Prospect to Stollem Road. The lights were in 1 gallon mIlk jugs and it was really cool. I'll make a point of driving down that road every Christmas eve.


Fri, Dec 24, 2010 : 4:43 p.m.

"When I moved to Michigan, my family sent me a string of electric luminarias to line my sidewalk, but it just didn't fit the landscape. I knew we would have to adopt or create our own traditions in my new hometown, and we have." As a person of multicultural background I am confused as to why you have not continued using the luminarias. Why don't they "fit the landscape"? In these times and particularly in a place like Ann Arbor that expects and embraces diversity, I feel like you haven't given a convincing reason for abandoning a tradition of your culture that means so much to you. We do a lot of cultural combining in our household, mixing of different traditions while always keeping the things that are important to us. We American-ize Eid, we Italian-ize and Arab-ize Thanksgiving, and it works. We have lanterns in Ramadan. We make them, buy them, hang them everywhere. We put lights on our house at Eid and don't care if the neighbors don't understand why we have "Christmas lights" on our house in the middle of the summer. I guess what I'm trying to say here is even if you're the only person on the block who has or cares about luminarias, since they are so important to you it seems like you should put them up and celebrate your heritage. I hope I don't sound like I'm trying to criticize you, I'm just trying to encourage you do go for it. :)