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Preparing to light the night in Santa Fe

December 24, 2018

At Acequia Madre Elementary School, a handful of families brave the cold on Christmas Eve to help light Santa Fe’s holiday tradition.

About two dozen parents and students light about 1,800 farolitos around the school as part of the annual Farolito Walk on the city’s east side. And though the walk is a beloved Santa Fe tradition, these volunteers have created their own ritual by bringing one piece of the ritual to life.

“Usually if you do it once, you want to do it again,” said Margaret Hennesy, Acequia Madre’s librarian.

Hennesy has worked for the school for 12 years and has been lighting farolitos throughout the decade. She said her favorite part is lighting the candles on the school’s roof and watching hundreds of lights flicker to life like fallen stars.

“It’s a really magical thing,” she said.

While one group of volunteers will arrange farolitos on Monday morning, another will light them in the late afternoon. Another group cleans up.

But in reality, the work begins long before Christmas Eve.

After Thanksgiving, fourth- through sixth-grade students fold the bags. On the last Friday of school before winter break, all the classes gather to pour sand from a large pile into as many bags as they can manage.

The candles will then be inserted as the bags are placed in lines around the schoolyard on Christmas Eve.

Emily Waltz, the school’s parent teacher committee president, said it cost about $500 for candles and about $50 for the bags. She said the sand was donated by two dads this year.

This is Waltz’s sixth year setting up the farolitos alongside her daughter, Viola, a second-grade student, and son, Monty, who is in fifth grade.

“It’s a sweet thing to do in the neighborhood and celebrate the season,” Waltz said.

Monty bragged how he and his desk partner completed 100 bags, saying it’s “really fun.”

On nearly every side of the city, people create their own farolito gatherings. Most aren’t as extensive as the one in the Canyon Road neighborhood, but the preparation — bags, candles, lighting — is the same.

For families new to town, this sense of fun and belonging come with the walk.

“Being new to Santa Fe, the sense of community for Acequia Madre and seeing other families out there is special,” said Jonika Horton, who moved to Santa Fe with her husband and second-grade daughter in February.

While this will be Horton’s first time setting up the farolitos, it isn’t her first experience with them. On Christmas Eve 12 years ago, her husband proposed on Fatima Street during the Farolito Walk.

“It’ll always be a part of our relationship,” Horton said, adding the opportunity to set up the magic for others to enjoy was a no-brainer.

As neighbors and businesses around Canyon Road come together to line the area with farolitos, Hennesy said, the school always manages to recruit volunteers to ensure its participation.

“It’s just part of our responsibility as part of being in that neighborhood,” she said.

Hennesy said she’s gotten the lighting down like a professional. Her tool of choice: a standard Bic lighter. She said as much as people expect stick lighters to work well for the job, she’s found them to break every time and fail against strong winds. One small Bic lighter can take care of about 100 farolitos, she said, although there’s a cost.

“You end up with really cold hands,” she said with a laugh.

One year, she tried using a creme brulée torch, thinking it would take care of multiple bags in a quick spurt of fiery glory. Instead, the bags ended up in ashes.

While she’s burned a few fingers and bags across the years as she’s honed her technique, she said it’s worth it to see the beautiful glow before going home to warm up by her fire on Christmas Eve.

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