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Tlaquepaque’s Festival of Lights: A 48-Year Sedona Tradition

A woman lights a luminaria in the Patio De Las Campanas (Derek von Briesen/Courtesy)

A woman lights a luminaria in the Patio De Las Campanas (Derek von Briesen/Courtesy)

Originally Published: December 6, 2021 1:53 p.m.

Begun 48 years ago, the Festival of Lights has become a Tlaquepaque tradition, anticipated and enjoyed by Verde Valley residents and visitors alike. This year it takes place on Dec. 11 beginning with Santa’s grand entrance at 3 p.m.

The Festival of Lights involves the lighting of 6000 luminarias throughout the Tlaquepaque Arts and Shopping Village. A luminaria is a small paper bag with some sand in the bottom for weight and a small tea light candle inside. The Sedona Marine Corps League coordinates the filling of the bags each year, which takes two days, and the placement of the luminarias around the plazas the day of the event. Specially designated luminarias to honor cancer survivors can be purchased in Patio Del Norte as well.

The bags will line the walkways and walls of Tlaquepaque for the festival. At 5 p.m. the chapel bells will toll and volunteers will circulate through the crowds to provide candles with which to light the luminarias. Everyone can participate in the lighting process. The effect is stunning when they are all lit and the plazas glow with their warm light.

There is a bit of debate about where and how the tradition of luminarias originated but some point to Spanish roots, brought to North America by conquistadors in the mid-1500s. Portuguese-born explorer Gaspar Castaño de Sosa made journal entries referencing small fires lit along the pathway to his military encampment in what is now northern New Mexico to help soldiers find their way back at night. He referred to the fires as luminarias and is sometimes credited with first using the name that has stuck into present-day. Luminaria is Spanish for “festival lights.” Some people use the modernized “luminaries” instead. In New Mexico, “farolitos” (meaning “little lanterns”) is also common to hear.


Tlaquepaque decked out with Christmas lights and luminarias during the Festival of Lights. (Derek von Briesen/Courtesy)

An even earlier reference comes from Franciscan monk Toribio de Benavente Motolinia who described small fires used by the native people of present-day Mexico during holy day celebrations. Other historical references to “little fires” include the burning of small bonfires in ancient Spain celebrating the feast days of Roman gods and the Chinese invention of paper lanterns in 1872. Some stories even say that small fires lit the way for Mary and Joseph as they travelled to Jerusalem. In Acadian tradition, from present-day Quebec, Canada, the lights guide the way for Pa Pa Noël on Christmas Eve. Today, in some smaller Pueblo communities in New Mexico, the little paper bags with lit candles inside illuminate the path to the local church for services on Christmas Eve.

Whatever the true origins of luminarias, the tradition has become a staple in the Southwest and is a sight to behold in Sedona’s own Old Mexico style arts and shopping village, Tlaquepaque.

The Festival of Lights celebration begins on Dec. 11 with Santa’s arrival at the Patio del Norte at 3 p.m. He will be there with his elf until 6 p.m. for photos and to visit with children to hear their holiday wishes. In the same area, Sedona’s own Tom and Shondra will perform from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. followed by The Swingtips from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. In the Patio De Las Campanas, Ritmo Latino performs from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and vocalist Rosemary Chavez will be there from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. At La Fuente, the River of Life Choir, with more than 80 adult and youth members, will sing from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and award-winning Billboard musician Michael Kollwitz will perform on The Chapman Stick in the beautiful Chapel at Tlaquepaque.

In addition, there will be free hot cider and other festive activities and surprises to help usher in the holiday season. “The Festival of Lights evokes a feeling of community and closeness,” said Wendy Lippman, Resident Partner and General Manager of Tlaquepaque Arts and Shopping Village. “People are happy and in a festive holiday spirit. To be able to participate and light the luminarias makes for a special tradition – especially with a little bit of hot cider!” Bring the whole family to enjoy this delightful Sedona tradition.

On-site parking is limited so carpooling or walking to the venue is highly recommended. A free trolley shuttle will run from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. from the Uptown municipal parking lot at 269 Schnebly Road.

For more information, call 928-282-4838 or visit Tlaq.com/events.

Cindy Cole is a freelancer for the Independent. She is a writer, editor, photographer and artist. Reach her at cindycole@live.com.