Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Luminaries

Item:

“The first time I remember one staying lit the whole night I was like… blown away, I ran inside and got my parents.”

Families take time just before Christmas to set up paper bags full of sand and a candle along sidewalks, driveways, and streets throughout the town. They are called luminaries, and setting them up is a community effort that results in beautiful lanterns lining all of the streets in the days leading up to Christmas. The purpose of setting them up was apparently to light the way for Mary and Joseph on their journey to Nazareth. If a candle remained lit by the next morning in front of your home, it was considered to be a sign of good health.

 

Context:

The informant couldn’t pinpoint a specific time when the ritual started, since it had been going on in his town for countless generations. He believes that the idea of creating and placing luminaries is originally a hispanic tradition, although there aren’t still connections to hispanic culture in his enactment of the tradition. He says it was extremely rare to see a candle stay lit overnight, but on occasions that it happened it was a big deal, at least when he was a kid. His family isn’t particularly religious, but participation seemed to be more encouraged by a sense of community than a sense of spirituality. Not doing so would make your family stick out like a sore thumb. It was akin to setting up Christmas lights, but more significant and meaningful to him.

 

Analysis:

For a town in Ohio that doesn’t have much of Spanish community, it’s interesting that he pegs it as a traditionally Hispanic ritual. The tradition definitely involves a lot more setup than just Christmas lights, but provides a much more beautiful display it seems. It’s nice that there didn’t seem to be any element of age associated with the significance of tradition, like a lot of others. It had the same meaning for adults and kids alike, and called for both to take part in set up. Finally, the emphasis on community being the driving factor to participate more so than religion raises the point of how the folklore has changed over time. It likely started as a religious act (since there was no pressure from a community to participate in something that wasn’t done on a repeated basis) and over time shifted to a community ritual as religious relevance faded over time.

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