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A Christmas Eve Tradition: The Santa Fe Farolito Walk

Art galleries in Santa Fe are decked out in lights in the winter

Few things can put someone in the Christmas spirit like cold air, fresh snow, an open flame, and hot chocolate. If you add a dash of tradition, the experience is complete — Christmas in New Mexico is magical! One place we discovered this rare combination of Christmas spirit was at the Santa Fe Farolito Walk on Canyon Road.

The farolito lanterns on adobe buildings along Santa Fe's Canyon Road
The lanterns beautifully accent the adobe buildings

Every Christmas Eve, Santa Fe’s Canyon Road is lined with thousands of homemade farolitos — paper bags filled with an inch or two of sand to support a single illuminated candle. A handful of luminarias (small bonfires made of local pinyon wood) dot the snow covered streets. The whole scene is incredibly beautiful!

The roads are closed and people can stroll the street soaking up the ambiance and indulging in hot beverages. [Note: In other places, farolitos are called luminarias and luminarias are called bonfires, but Santa Fe uses a different naming custom.]

Illuminated lanterns in a cross pattern is a hallmark of this Santa Fe tradition
A cross of illuminated lanterns

Nobody really knows how the farolito tradition began. Several cities in Mexico have traditions of using lighted lanterns to illuminate the way for Jesus. Other cities use bonfires for the same purpose. Some say the tradition started to light the way of Mary and Joseph. No matter what its origins, Santa Fe’s Farolito Walk on Canyon Road has become a major town event, bringing in thousands of participants.

As we turned into Canyon Road, a young girl ran past us joyfully calling out, “Feliz Navidad.” She repeated it over and over in a sing-songy voice, “Feliz Navidad.” Occasionally she’d throw in an accented “Merry Christmas” for good measure. These two words would ring out down Santa Fe’s Canyon Road.

Private homes on Canyon Road are decorated with lanterns for the farolito walk on Christmas Eve

Every street in Santa Fe is filled with iconic adobe box houses. Canyon Road is no exception. On Canyon Road, private homes are mixed in among upscale Southwestern art galleries and a handful of cafes and restaurants. The small bends in the road give anticipation to treats beyond every turn. Those treats included elaborate farolito displays.

Home decorated with farolitos on Canyon Road as part of the Santa Fe Christmas tradition

We’d heard from a local friend that it’s best to go early — right at sundown when there is still a little light in the sky. We’d also heard that families tend to go earlier in the night. We opted to go later, when there were fewer families and the crowds would be a little more manageable.

The first hour of the walk gave us a chance to experience the magic of this annual Santa Fe Christmas tradition. While you can find pricey Farolito Walk tours online, there’s really no need because you can just explore Canyon Road on your own.

As it turns out, we caught the final hour of the official walk time. At some point, the local police department opened the road to vehicles and the whole scene became a surreal experience of families doing drive-bys and low-riders out for a cruise on the town. A party-like atmosphere took hold. Somewhere on the walk, we bumped into a group singing Christmas carols. It was so much fun!

Carolers around the luminaries on Canyon Road
Carolers around the luminaries

On our ski trip to New Mexico, we discovered that Christmas in Santa Fe is absolutely magical!

Paper lanterns and Christmas display
Feliz Navidad!

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