After months of preparation, annual luminarias display returns to San Juan College

Free event opens to pedestrians at 5 p.m. and motorists at 6 p.m.

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The display features 25,000 luminarias each year.
  • A total of 1,200 people work on the event in the week leading up to the display.
  • Anyone who wants to take some luminarias home with them is encouraged to do so when the event is over.

FARMINGTON — This time of year, a large sheaf of papers bound in a clipboard is Amanda Robles constant companion, an indispensable tool that represents years of acquired knowledge and best practices achieved through trial and error.

You might call it her user’s manual to staging the annual campuswide luminarias display at San Juan College, an enormous undertaking that will mark its 44th year this weekend. As the director of student engagement and campus life at the college, Robles is the lead organizer for the free event, and the information featured in that sheaf of papers includes week-by-week, day-by-day and even minute-by-minute instructions for what needs to happen for the 25,000-luminarias display to go off as planned each year.

“We’re way ahead of schedule, and everything is going great,” Robles said on the afternoon of Dec. 1 as she joined students Christina Holden and Dante Stevens of the Campus Activities Board in attending to several details related to the event from a parking lot south of the Henderson Fine Arts Center.

Work on the event is essentially a year-round endeavor, as planning occurs months in advance, and the two dozen groups active across the campus hold various sessions throughout the year to fold the bags used in the display.

Holden proudly noted she helped fold more than 1,000 bags herself this year, explaining how the CAB held Taco Tuesday bag-folding events throughout the semester. Other campus groups had pizza parties and movie nights while they folded bags, she said.

Dante Stevens, left, the Campus Activities Board vice president; Christina Holden, the CAB president; and Amanda Robles, the director of student engagement and campus life, fill sacks with sand on Dec. 1 in preparation for this weekend's luminarias display on the San Juan College campus in Farmington.

On the Monday before the display each year, preparations move into high gear, as truckloads of sand are delivered and schoolchildren from throughout Farmington help fill the bags. Robles said a total of 1,200 people are called upon to assist in the effort throughout the week, which includes the cleanup effort on Sunday, the day after the display.

This is the first year Stevens has worked on the event as the vice president of the CAB, but he said he used to help fill bags as a youngster growing up in Farmington.

“I remember coming here as a kindergartener and first-grader,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to see behind the scenes and all the logistics. And it’s crazy to realize someone has to light every single candle.”

Students, staff members and their children from the Child and Family Development Center at San Juan College fill sacks with sand on Dec. 1 in preparation for this weekend's luminarias display on the college campus in Farmington.

Robles said the luminarias are transported and dropped throughout the week at 12 covered sites across the campus before being deployed to line the sidewalks on the day before the event by middle school and high school students. The display also includes 144 sets of electric luminarias that are set up on the roofs of buildings by college staff members.

The luminarias are lit between 3 and 5 p.m. on the day of the event by a crew of 100 people, while dozens of others will patrol the campus during the event relighting candles that have gone out or replacing luminarias that have been damaged or destroyed by wind or other elements. Robles said 400 to 500 lighters are used over the course of the evening.

Those who prefer to tour the campus on foot can do so beginning at 5 p.m., while the driving tour begins at 6 p.m. The Park-N-Ride Red Apple Luminaria Trolley will be offering free rides from 6 to 8 p.m. from the Piedra Vista High School parking lot. Those who prefer to drive the route are asked to enter the campus from Sunrise Parkway on the west side of the campus and turn off their headlights while driving through the campus. The display remains open until 10 p.m.

Several dozen luminarias are stored at a covered location on the San Juan College campus in Farmington on Dec. 1 in preparation for this weekend's annual luminarias display.

The event also will feature a stargazing party with telescopes in the courtyard outside the Planetarium run by astronomy professor David Mayeux beginning at 6:30 p.m. And KSJE-FM, the campus radio station, will be broadcasting Christmas carols throughout the evening.

Robles said the event is a holiday tradition for many Farmington families, some of which begin lining up in their cars at the entrance to the campus at 3 p.m. on the day of the display so they can be among the first to drive through each year. And many of them return to the campus beginning at 2 a.m. Sunday to claim the luminarias, which are given away to anyone who wants to reuse them until 9 a.m.

“We want everybody to come and reuse them,” Robles said. “You’ll see carloads of people come and get a couple.”

At 9 a.m. Sunday, the cleanup begins, a remarkably efficient operation that usually is completed in approximately three hours, although Holden said so many people helped last year, every luminaria had been removed within one hour. Volunteers are rewarded with breakfast burritos for lending a hand, she said.

Luminarias line the roof of the Henderson Fine Arts Center on the San Juan College campus in Farmington on Dec. 1 in preparation for this weekend's annual luminarias display.

The college’s luminarias display coincides with other displays at colleges and universities across New Mexico, including those at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. But Robles said the San Juan College display is by far the largest and involves the most people.

She describes the event and the days leading up to it as her favorite time of year.

Dante Stevens and Christina Holden of the San Juan College Campus Activities Board place candles in sand-filled sacks on Dec. 1 in preparation for this weekend's annual luminarias display on the college campus in Farmington.

“The main objective for me to lead this is to provide a way for the students to give thanks to the community, which supports the college a lot,” she said. “My next objective is to get students across this campus involved.”

For more information about the event, call 505-566-3403.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 Support local journalism with a digital subscription: