My father died in the autumn after I turned 14, and my heart was ripped apart. Through the cold, dark weeks of adolescence that followed, I slouched towards the winter solstice with molasses in my soul. Everything my father had touched with joy in life became emotional shrapnel to me upon his death, and I soon found that he had touched absolutely every aspect of my world.
As Advent fell towards Christmas, once-joyful traditions filled me with dread: biscochitos, posole with red chile, piñon smoke, Christmas Eve carols, and the most painful of all: luminarias. Luminarias are the light and soul of Christmas in New Mexico, my homeland. They are beautifully simple: little brown paper sack lanterns, set out on Christmas Eve to pave the holy family’s path to the manger with light.
I grew up spending Christmas Eve with my papa, filling brown paper sacks with sand and votive candles. We lit them together with silent joy as the sun set.
The year my papa died, no one had the heart to make luminarias. My mama, sister, brother and I left a silent, dark house to sing Christmas Eve carols at church. We dreaded the darkness that awaited our return home, but instead we found a miracle: our home was surrounded by luminarias, lit and blazing in their full glory.
My aunt called that evening to confess — my father had come to her in a dream, and instructed her to light the luminarias. Everyone will all be so down in the dumps this year, he said. It will be such a great surprise!
Every year since, I’ve lit the luminarias. Some years I light them with my mama, and some years with my daughters. Some years I light them with my sister, and some years with my brother. For a time, I lit them with a man once much beloved. Now I light them on my own.
In the years since that luminaria miracle in the pit of my family’s winter, so much joy and so much sadness have come to pass. I became a wife and a mother. I became British, then New Mexican again. Finally, through immense pain and joy, I became a free woman.
In Britain, I learned to light diyas at Diwali. In Berlin I learned to release the old year like a fire lantern, and dance in the New Year with fireworks at my feet. I learned that a single flame can drive an immensity of homesickness back into the darkness.
I lit candles when my children were born and when my grandfather died. I lit candles when the power went out on the remote cattle ranch where I once found myself so deeply lost and alone that I feared my life was over (it wasn’t).
I light candles when there is nothing left but fertile darkness, from which to draw back the light. I light candles. My children blow them out. I light them again. In Latin America, to be born is described as coming into the light (dar a luz).
I don’t know how many precious days I have left. Should I, like my father, pass before I grow old, then I too will find a way to linger just long enough to rekindle the flame that guides my family back into the light.