Aglow for the Holidays in the Southwest

When my family moved from Rhode Island to Phoenix, we spent our first Christmas driving around in a convertible soaking up the sun. After years of snow-laden winters, it was clear that the holidays weren’t going to be defined by snowmen and slush anymore. At first, my 11-year-old self was bummed, but I grew to love what December in Arizona meant: long walks, grilling outside on cold nights, great shopping, and the smell of the creosote bush after the rare rainfall.

Even though seasons can tend to blur together in Phoenix, there was one event that signaled the arrival of the holidays: Las Noches de las Luminarias at the Desert Botanical Garden. Each December more than 8,000 luminarias (simple paper bags illuminated by votive candles) transformed 145 acres of the Arizona desert — lining trails, setting off rooftops, and bathing plants and flowers in a soft glow. For 35 years, Arizona families have voted with their feet to make this annual event a must-see tradition.

Marcia Flynn, affectionately called the “Lumi Diva,” works all year to prepare and organize the logistics, security, volunteers, entertainment, and food that make Las Noches de las Luminarias such a rousing success. Eleven acts will be performing each night the event is open to the public, including handbell choirs, carolers, and mariachi bands. Crews roam the grounds each night to ensure that every water-resistant, eco-friendly bag is lit.

“In Phoenix, you don’t get snow, but you need something to remind you that the holidays are here and luminaria is that for a lot of people,” Flynn says. “That’s why it’s important for us to have the core traditions of the event but always be bringing in something new and fresh.”

The tradition isn’t just cherished by locals. Visitors from all over flock to the Valley of the Sun to witness the spectacle.

Guests at the Royal Palms Resort, a historic property where casitas are tucked away in courtyards and gardens, routinely request information on Las Noches de las Luminarias since it’s just a short drive away. Jenna Goss, the resort’s guest relations coordinator, says she loves connecting people with the event. “The guests get to soak in the effect of thousands of flickering lights with a warm drink in hand and carolers singing in the background,” she says. “There really isn’t a better way to showcase the beauty of the desert.”

Las Noches de las Luminarias isn’t the only illuminated destination in the Southwest. The much-loved Canyon Road Farolito Walk attracts thousands of revelers to Santa Fe each Christmas Eve. (There is some debate on nomenclature, and, here, the candelit bags are called farolitos.) Given the city’s higher elevation, there’s a good chance that snow will arrive in time to make the festive display a true winter wonderland.

But at least one hotel leaves luminarias up all year long: Santa Fe’s Inn of the Five Graces. Owned (and designed) by prominent artisans Ira and Sylvia Seret, whose son, Sharif, acts as general manager, the hotel is quite literally a family affair. When I toured the rooms, each one filled with Afghan and Tibetan artifacts and mosaic-tiled bathrooms, my jaw dropped open. Many people have trouble pinpointing the exact design, but it’s a Far-East-meets-West fusion that works extremely well in Santa Fe.

While the inn uses real candles on Christmas Eve, the family decided to leave electric luminarias up year-round because they were so popular with their guests. They even named their best suite “The Luminaria.” “Santa Fe has its beautiful moments in every season, but there is a lot of soul this time of year, with the Spanish heritage, Catholic traditions, and beautiful cathedrals,” Sharif says.

I won’t be heading home to Arizona for Christmas this year, but I think I might fill a few brown paper bags with votive candles to add a dash of Southwest flavor to my apartment in New York City. It won’t be quite the same as walking through Las Noches de las Luminarias, but it’s sure to help get me into the holiday spirit.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her travels on Twitter @anniefitz.