Glowing farolitos atop an adobe wall

For most visitors to Santa Fe – not to mention those of us fortunate enough to live here – the highlight of the Christmas Season has to be the Farolito Walk on Canyon Road (and adjacent old Spanish calles) on Christmas Eve, just  as night falls. This annual event has a magical quality to it that has almost no equal in the United States, and you really need to put it on that ‘must see’ list you’re keeping for future vacations.

Inn on the Alameda just happens to be right across the little Santa Fe River from the western end of Canyon Road where the walk begins. Since Christmas Eve is inevitably cold, and often snowy, here in Santa Fe, and since the walk is very crowded (read, impossible to park anywhere near), a room at the Inn is the perfect departing place for your stroll. And when you finally get too chilled to enjoy the lights and carols and fragrant pinon fires – and you will – a quick walk back down Delgado Street brings you back to our warm fire-lit lounge where you can enjoy a warm drink before heading out to dinner, or off to bed.

Sweet carols in Spanish around the fires at the top of Acequia Madre

There must be thousands of farolitos – ‘little lanterns’ – lining the twisting streets in the Canyon Road Arts & Crafts District on this special night, outlining the roads, ornamenting the walls, highlighting the rooftops, even perched in trees, here and there. A farolito is nothing more that a brown paper lunch bag with a scoop of sand and a votive candle in it, but the effect of hundreds upon hundreds of these glowing softly everywhere you look is quite enchanting. Add to this the little pinon bonfires every block or so, with walkers huddled around them warming their hands and perfuming their clothes, and the colorful lights strung about the galleries, and Christmas trees seen through windows along the way, and you have the perfect way to put the gift-wrapping behind you at last, and to begin to enjoy the magic of Christmas Eve.

A Christmas star and an enticing window beyond

While I admit other towns may put a few farolitos along their streets on Christmas Eve – we did, back in Indiana, only we called them luminarios – I submit that no other town except Santa Fe has flying farolitos:

The launch of one of Santa Fe’s famous flying farolitos

Nearly every Christmas Eve a most unusual German-born sprite named Arvo Thompson slips down to Santa Fe from somewhere North – we think near Taos  – and brings his delicately constructed balloons fashioned out of the thinnest white paper, designed to loft into the winter night under the power of thirty tiny candles. The flying lanterns are tetrahedral in shape and about five feet tall, and the touchy process of inflating them, inserting the delicate crossbar, lighting the candles, and getting them out of their tent and into the night sky is as intensely engaging as a medical operation:

Preparing for liftoff

If you’re really lucky you might get to help.

These works of installation art are a pure labor of love, because in spite of their intricate construction, their life is as ephemeral as a rainbow’s. They drift up into the dark sky over Santa Fe, glowing through the bare winter branches of the trees, shrinking with distance into a warm orange star, only to abruptly flare out in a small silent conflagration of light and falling sparks. They’re wonderful.

So put us on your calendar for next Christmas if you can get away. Toss in your warmest ear muffs and your long underwear and prepare for a Christmas Eve you’ll remember for a long time. Where else are you going to see flying farolitos?

Above Santa Fe