A couple of years ago on the lawn in front of the old Blanco County Courthouse, Maggie Goodman spun a yarn about how a little boy invented the luminaria.
He was trying to light up his little house in the country so the “pastores” or shepherds would be able to find his place and seek shelter there on their way to visit the Christ child.
He found that if he took a regular brown paper bag and placed a candle in it, it would glow with a beautiful, soft light. He put an inch or two of sand in the bottom of the bag to keep it from blowing away. It was a small thing but he thought that if he lined the path to his house with many of them, the pastores were sure to take note. According to the legend, the pastores saw his luminarias lighting the path to his house and they came and took lodging with him and his family.
Luminarias at Christmastime are very popular in New Mexico and far west Texas. But you can’t have just one! A luminaria, after all, is a small thing. If you are going to set out many luminarias you must plan carefully in order to acquire just the right number of paper bags, candles and the right amount of sand.
I have seen some households that just light up the sidewalks in front of the house. I have seen other houses with luminarias lining both the sidewalks and the roof. In New Mexico it is not uncommon to see public buildings and businesses totally illuminated with the softly glowing little lanterns.
I first learned of luminarias when I was invited to help set them out in a neighborhood in Montevideo, Uruguay. Mr. and Mrs. James Barton, who had gone to South America as missionaries from their home in New Mexico, were granted permission to decorate an entire block of houses with luminarias.
At the entrance to each house a display was set up showing a Christmas tradition from one of eight countries around the world. At night it was a wonderland of soft, glowing lights, traditional Christmas music, nativity scenes, Christmas trees and Kris Kringles. Children and adults sang carols and candy canes and the story of the first Christmas were distributed to passers by.
Word spread rapidly by word of mouth throughout Montevideo and the newspapers did full page reports with photos. Such elaborate decorations, at the time, were very rare in that part of the hemisphere. The exhibit became a tradition from year to year and many thousands of visitors enjoyed the international display of Christmas spirit and good will.
A luminaria is a small thing. Put one lighted by the side of the road and it would go almost unnoticed. But line a whole road with them and it turns into a spectacular display on which the eye is wont to dwell. So it is in El Paso where Mount Franklin divides the city into two parts.
Scenic Drive ascends up the point of the mountain to a popular little roadside park where Old Glory proudly waves in view of two countries and three states. The road to the park is lined each Christmas season with thousands of luminarias—replenished each evening by hundreds of local volunteers.
A luminaria is a small thing. But many taken together become glorious to behold.
“Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.” (D&C 64:33)
This time of year, unfortunately, there are many out there who are lonely or feeling underappreciated or perhaps even angry because of some perceived injustice. Just as a single luminaria is relatively small and insignificant, when small acts of kindness are bestowed by many, they tend to accumulate and to become something that is very bright and beautiful.
“Random acts of kindness” is one way to describe life’s little luminarias. With a little purposeful forethought, how many lives could each of us illuminate this holiday season?