Luminarias: Making Spirits Bright

The light before Christmas.

Since the early 1970s, the community has gathered in Tlaquepaque each December to light paper-bag-packed votive candles. When some 6,000 lights pierce the darkness with a warm, hopeful glow, it’s easy to see how this became a beloved Sedona tradition. Those who were there shed light on how it began.



“Thirty-one years ago, Christmas in Sedona was not commercially a big deal,” recalls Geoffrey Roth, whose jewelry store and gallery was one of the first to occupy the then-fledgling Tlaquepaque in the early 1970s. “For the first few years [of the luminaria], it was mostly locals. It was so nice to be able to get everybody together in one place for a special occasion. It was very moving, once a year at Christmas time, the cameraderie.”

The number of participants have increased – a lot – since Roth and another shop owner, James Harris, lit upon the idea to make Tlaquepaque glow in the night. But the feeling of community continues to fuel the annual lighting of the luminarias, now one of Sedona’s signature holiday traditions, which this year will take place on Sat., Dec. 11, at the Mexi­can-style arts and crafts village on Hwy 179.

Chime candles are distributed prior to 5 p.m., and when the Bell Tower tolls, all of Sedona can help light the luminaries – votive candles set into small, decorative paper bags weighted with sand and placed around the courtyards by women’s volunteer service organization Sorop­tomists International of Sedona. The glow from all those lights in unison is at once festive and haunting and beautiful, a breathtaking statement of unity.

For Tlaquepaque, envisioned by founder Abe Miller as a re-creation of a Mexican village, bringing the luminaria tradition north was a natural. The custom traces back to 16th century Spain, when little fires were set as a way to guide travelers to Midnight Mass. The practice was carried to the New World by Spanish settlers, evolved into use of decorative lanterns, and, more economically, the paper-bag alternative.

“When we first started my son was seven years old, and the boy scouts in town used to fill the bags,” recalls Ann Fabricant, owner of Cocopah and another early member of the Tlaque­paque community. “Part of the specialness of the event is that it’s completely, lovingly handmade. All the merchants still get their hundred bags, and we do the folding. As we more and more lose the feeling of being a small town, it’s one of those traditions that lets us hang on to our heritage.”

“In December in the ’70s, Sedona was a pretty quiet place,” Roth remembers. “The restaurants would close for the whole month of December. Typically, a lot of locals would go to Phoenix for shopping. But they’d also begun to go to Tlaque­paque, because a lot of us were [neighbors] starting businesses, something that didn’t really exist here in Sedona. Ninety percent of all the shops we have now in Uptown didn’t exist then.”

“Originally, it was kind of like a thank you to the people of Sedona,” says Tlaquepaque veteran Bobbie Living­ston, owner of Ninibah. “We would all pitch in and serve things; we used to serve hot apple cider and we’d put a little apricott brandy in for people who wanted a little spice in it. We’d have hors d’oeuvres out on the counters and it was kind of like an open house of welcoming all our customers in the area and, then, out of the area.”

That tradition of community still drives the event. This year, for the first time, specially designated luminarias in the plaza in Patio del Norte will be honoring cancer survivors, victims and families. “Luminarias have become a special symbol to honor the memory of a loved one or to provide a gesture of hope for the future of someone who is battling cancer and their family,” said Wendy Lipp­man, general mana­ger and resident partner of Tlaque­paque, in a statement announcing the program. Luminarias for this area can be sponsored for $10 apiece in honor of a loved one, with all proceeds going to the American Cancer Society for research. To purchase a special luminaria, visit Tlaquepaque’s online store at, send an e-mail to or call (928) 282-4838.

It’s yet another extension of an event whose simple power and beauty has given it a natural staying power, and humbly burns more brightly with the passing years. “We were just looking for events to do,” sums up Fabricant. “We were the only game in town then. There was no L’Auberge, there was no Hyatt, there was no Hill­side, there was no Hozho, so the town really looked to us. Sedona was just dead in December and this was kind of like to get something going. It was the high point of the winter.” For many of today’s Sedona residents and visitors, it’s comforting to say it still is.

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