Editor’s note: Much has changed in New Mexico since this story first appeared in the Sun Sentinel in December 1991 (thank you, Travel Editor Thomas Swick). Many more people know about the Land of Enchantment now because of Breaking Bad. The Piggly Wiggly store mentioned here is long gone. The plastic and electrified farolito or luminaria has now clearly supplanted the brown paper sack and candle common when I was growing up in New Mexico in the 1970s – when the word “gringo” meant, roughly, anyone not actually born in the state. On a recent trip out west, I even found plastic farolitos now on the old walls of the Santuario de Chimayo (photo above). It’s much safer than the old way, to be sure; but not quite the same.
By Mark Gauert
They`ll leave a light on for the Travelers again this Christmas in New Mexico.
“Sometimes I think even God would need one to find us,“ said the counterman at Piggly Wiggly in Albuquerque, the night before Christmas. “Even then …“
He lifted his eyes to a ceiling stained with coffee-colored circles, and sighed.
“You know what they say about New Mexico. So far from Heaven, so close to Texas.“
And so busy at the Piggly Wiggly on Christmas Eve.
The counterman`s name was Sanchez, and he wore it pinned to his red work vest. His white shirt was cinched at the neck with a silver string bolo tie set with a shiny turquoise stone.
A lot of people like me had been in for farolitos, the lights to help the Travelers find their way on Christmas Eve.
He said the Sanchezes had been waiting for the Travelers for a long time, too. Before Statehood. Before Territorial days.
“Before the gringos stole Christmas,“ he said, sighing again.
In the old days – in his great-grandfather`s time – people set bundles of branches ablaze along the footpaths. They would keep watch on Christmas Eve for the Travelers, warming themselves by the fires – the faros – as sweet piñon smoke filled the cold night air.
At midnight, they would follow the yellow lights to church. They would say Mass in sanctuaries raised in adobe bricks, beneath ceilings crossed with pine timbers hanging with evergreen and glowing with candlelight.
After Mass, in villages up in the Sangre de Cristos and in cities along the Rio Grande, they would follow the faros home in silence, and prepare something to eat and a place to rest for the Travelers.
Then they would listen at the door.
For one knock.
Three, the trinity.
Sometimes a neighbor would be there, or someone from church. Sometimes a stranger.
From the smallest casita to the grandest hacienda, all Travelers were welcome on Christmas Eve.
Some would stay, Sanchez said; others would say thanks, and move on. The important thing was to be ready for them, to let them know there was room at la posada, the inn.
Even if the knocks never came. Even if the faros crumbled to cinder and ash, and smoked out in the morning light.
“Because you never know when the Travelers will come,“ Sanchez said. “Being ready is everything.“
That`s the way he remembered Christmas in New Mexico. That`s the way it worked.
Sanchez paused, looking across the counter past the electric snowman kit, $19.95.
The gringos brought a lot of changes to New Mexico, he said. Cattle. Railroads. Schools. Dams. Power plants. Atomic-weapons testing facilities. And the A-bomb, which turned a part of the state down south into a large, smoking crater. But at Christmas, few things changed New Mexico more than the Fire Laws.
“They thought it was not such a good idea to have a lot of faros burning all over the place,“ Sanchez said. One stray spark, maybe there goes the ranch, or the school, or the atomic-weapons testing facility.
So for perfectly sound, progressive reasons, the gringos banned open fires.
And left the Travelers in the dark.
At first, people tried building smaller faros to guide them, Sanchez said, hoping no one wouldn`t notice. But where there was piñon smoke, there was a fireman shoveling sand on it.
People tried lighting candles along the footpaths, too, but the cold night wind kept blowing them out. A lot of Travelers – and a lot of neighbors and people from the church, too – were getting lost on Christmas Eve and falling down canyons.
That`s when the gringos stepped in, Sanchez said, grinning.
“They gave us these,“ he said, patting a pile of brown paper lunch sacks, in 25-count packs.
“Take these out on the mesa, scoop a little sand into them,“ he said, shaking one open.
“Then you take one of these little candles,“ he said, patting a stack of white cardboard boxes, “and you push it down in the sand at the bottom of each sack.“
All very safe. All very modern.
“Except you have to be careful not to put too much sand in, because the wind will blow it out,“ he said. “And you have to be careful not to put in too little, or the wind will knock the whole sack over.“
It was complicated – and not quite the same – but the firemen approved. And, slowly, the brown paper lunch sack farolito caught on.
First on footpaths, in neat rows leading up to doors. Then at churches. Then, as years passed, on village squares, along adobe walls, even on top of cars in the driveway.
“If the Travelers come,“ Sanchez said, “they are welcome to the Chevy, too.“
Farolitos lighted New Mexico from the south – where they are called luminarias – to Old Town Plaza in Albuquerque, to the Sanctuario de Chimayo in the mountains, where the earth is said to have healing power.
And the Travelers could find their way in the dark again.
Sanchez glanced at the old Timex set in his silver wristband, studded with turquoise and red stones. An hour till quitting time.
Of course, the gringos stepped in again, he said, running a hand through his gray hair. The same ones who sold America “Santa Fe Style,“ with its bleached cow skulls, neon coyotes and tomato chili pesto sauce.
They just couldn`t leave the farolito “concept“ alone.
Why have a candle in your farolito, they asked, when you could electrify them with economical 7-watt clear bulbs?
Why worry about how far to set them apart along the footpath when you can have 30 feet of U.L. twisted wire and cord components spaced exactly 3 feet apart?
And why have brown paper lunch sacks when you could have all-plastic “sleeves“ in just about any color?
And why not turn a little profit on the deal, too?
The gringos organized contests to see who had the most farolitos in the yard, or the most complex farolito designs, or the farolitos arranged to look most like a roadrunner or the face of a president.
For the Travelers, they made nothing to eat, no place to rest, Sanchez said. They just blew out the candles, and went to bed.
“Those gringos,“ he said, shaking his head. “They made me laugh.“
But they also made him mad.
“Especially when they asked: Why have farolitos only at Christmas?“ he said, frowning.
Why not at Halloween? Why not for the Fourth of July? Why not for your kid sister`s slumber party?
Sanchez pointed his forefinger and punched it down on the countertop.
“I will tell you why not,“ he said, tapping his finger with each word. “Because it is not for you.
“It is for Them.“
Sanchez sighed, and looked at his watch again. It was late.
He looked at me and slid a box of farolito candles and a 25-count bag of brown paper lunch sacks across the countertop.
“Take them,“ he said, smiling.
“What do I owe you?“ I asked.
“On the house,“ he said, reaching for his overcoat. “Feliz Navidad.“
Then he froze, just before slipping an arm down the sleeve.
“Just do it right.“
They lit the farolitos that Christmas Eve down south along the border, and on Old Town Plaza in Albuquerque, and up at Chimayo. I shoveled sand into my sacks on my suburban cul-de-sac, too.
I set them a few feet apart on either side of the driveway, and pushed a candle into each as the sun went down. The neighbors were doing the same.
“Merry Christmas,“ they called. “Feliz Navidad.“
We lit them one by one, and, pretty soon, farolitos leading from sidewalks to doors flickered up and down the street.
Then I went inside and waited, like Sanchez had said.
For one knock.
But none came in my cul-de-sac. Just a wind in the piñons planted in the front yards.
After a while, I looked outside and saw that some of my farolitos were on fire.
I ran out in the cold and found my neighbor there, stomping the fire with big black boots.
He was a fireman.
“You`ve got to be careful not to put the candle so close to the sack,“ he said. “It`s OK, now.“
But it wasn`t. There were only a few farolitos left, and they lighted a strange, jumbled path to the door.
They burned on like that for hours.
Long after I closed the door and stirred the fire. Long after I had fallen asleep listening for the knock.
Long after midnight, and the clear wax rose and finally snuffed out the light.
Sanchez was out from behind the counter the week after Christmas, piling silver and gold tree ornaments into the half-off bin. He smiled when he saw me.
“So did the Travelers come to your house?“ he asked.
“No,“ I said. “My sacks caught fire.“
He threw his head back, and laughed.
“It is not important,“ he said. “I told you, being ready is everything.“
He turned and tossed another tangle of electric Christmas lights into the bin.
“And what about you?“ I asked. “Did you light the farolitos?“
“Of course,“ he said.
“And did you have a lot of Travelers?“
“No,“ he said. “Just the three.“