Monday, December 15, 2008


You know those regional products? The ones you find in local stores that you don't really think about (if you were raised in the area) but suddenly take a good look at and really wonder what the rest of the world would make of them? I glanced across the street the other day and the sight of one of those products proudly displayed on my neighbor's lawn struck me suddenly, and I wondered what some poor stranger dropped into this area would think when faced at the nearest GargantuaMart with this:

I would like to have taken a picture of them in all their glory but that would have meant setting up the tripod on my slanty drive (or risking life, limb and far more importantly my precious, precious camera in the street) and then hoping he didn't notice as I sat in the cold for half an hour trying to capture just the right image. It's a shame, because the images I've found on-line for these "electric bags of light" (and if that isn't an appealing product name...) are mostly from a distance where they look something like this:

Not bad, right? Slightly appealing? But take a closer look:

Yes. It's a brown plastic sleeve surrounding a wire frame and a light bulb. Or, in my neighbor's case, it's sixteen brown plastic sleeves and two bare bulbs shining away at the end.

I've tried to explain luminarias before to non-local friends, and it's a bit difficult. You take a brown paper bag - one of those lunch bags. Carefully fold it down about an inch or so at the top. Some people like to do a narrow, double fold, some like to do a single wider fold. It's practically impossible to fold it at all without tearing it a bit but, come on, it's a brown paper lunch bag and what are you going to do? Next, put an inch and a half or so of sand (around here it's fairly easy to come by - check the vacant lot next door). Too much sand and the bottom will tear when you try to lift the thing, too little and the next step won't work. Place one (1) luminaria candle inside, the sand stabilizing it beautifully. Repeat several dozen times. Sounds a bit odd, and I assure you that in the cold, harsh light of day it looks... well, like thousands of brown paper bags lining the sidewalks.

So, six of one etc? Plastic sleeve vs dirt filled paper sack? But to those with luminaria-know it's important to recognize the difference.

There're the bags of course. Flimsy little things, but it's essential that they're brown paper. I won't get all technical on the sand - any sand will do. My father actually set up a trolley and a ramp so he could use the stuff in the half-excavated part of our basement. But the really important thing is the candle. I only know those candles as luminaria candles - short fat little things that will burn for hours. They come in blue boxes for some reason, two dozen to a box.

Some of them will have faulty wicks, wicks that flop over after only a few minutes and slowly gutter out. Some will burn for a while but grow dimmer and dimmer and finally drown in their own wax. A few will get too enthusiastic and burn like mad, wasting their fuel in one glorious rush for the finish.

When the people walk the streets someone will inevitably nudge a bag the wrong way, or the sand will be put in unevenly so the candle topples over and the paper will catch fire, leaving a strange dark gap in the even rows. In the morning when the show is over and the bags are just bags again, slightly crumpled now with a small puddle of wax congealed around the aluminum diamond that anchored the wick, the burnt ones will be just a neat rectangle of sand.

It's hard work doing it. My father recycles his from year to year. We used to be the only house on the whole tour with sad, bunched up, wrinkled little bags. He's perfected the art now though and in the garage, carefully stashed away, are neat boxes filled with perfectly stacked bags - five to a stack, the sides aligned precisely so they slide out easily. Other neighbors hire seasonal workers who come in pick up trucks filled to the bumper with stacks and stacks of bags.

The kids help a lot at those houses without hired workers. They come out in mid morning when everyone sets out the bags, play in the wheelbarrows that are used to cart the heavy, sand filled bags safely around. They follow behind as the bags are placed, setting up candles and prying the wicks out of the wax to make them easier to light. Just before dusk you can hear them all begging to please use the lighter; luminarias are marvelous at the pyromaniac age. Before we had trigger lighters we used long candles, carefully sheltering the flame as we dipped and rose from one bag to the next. Now, with a careful eye from the adults, the kids are allowed to light a few at the far end of the lighter. Some families set up outdoor braziers to sit around and roast marshmallows. Others have worked all week to prepare enormous amounts of food for open houses as friends and neighbors move from house to house. The next day it all has to be dismantled and carted away (or stored for the next year). Hours of work.

But from dusk until well after midnight on Christmas Eve those bags are transformed into small, golden brown lanterns - thousands of them circling trees and parks, picking out the flat-roofed architecture and the pattern of the neighborhood streets with warm, flickering light. It's a soft glow, the regular rectangle of the bag just visible as light against the darker ground, at the base a brighter halo where the candle sits. Cars and motorcycles and tour buses inch slowly past and you can see where someone walks as their silhouette blocks the lights in regular progression down the street

Because you can't do it with plastic sleeves and light bulbs. You have to earn magic.


MitMoi said...

When I left Phoenix and moved to N.C. I did this ... my neighbors in my new state all came out and stared ... and stared ... and stared.

And it wasn't in WONDER ... it was more the "and they call us backwards" type of stare.

I don't care. I still do it. It reminds me of Saguaros and Ocotillo's.

Merry Christmas from a lost desert dweller.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, the box holds a certain fascination and appeal. The New England style home used for advertising outdoor 'electric bags of lights' positioned carefully under the Spanish name of Luminarias...what's not to love?

Megan said...

MitMoi - it's even funnier trying to do it in Germany. The expressions on the faces of our neighbors in that small town when we lined up what looked to them like very small sacks of rubbish was priceless! And Merry Christmas to you as well, and welcome!

Anonymous - I hadn't thought about it like that but you're absolutely right. I'm a terrible sucker for the truly dreadful and/or utterly incongruous and dang if this doesn't fit the bill. However, I was raised right and that means that The Plastic Luminaria Doth Blaspheme so sadly I can't buy any.