The Desert Botanical Garden’s longest-running tradition is Las Noches de las Luminarias (Luminaria). On a cold December night back in 1978, volunteers and staff worked to light 700 luminarias and welcome 600 guests for a one-night Las Noches de las Luminariasexperience at the Garden. The idea for Luminaria came from the executive director at the time, Rodney Engard, in collaboration with staff and volunteers. Engard wanted to create a holiday event, that represented the southwest and complemented the beauty of the Garden, that was a gift to the community. 

“Knowing Rodney and the way he thought, Luminaria was brought to the Garden as a truly special evening to be shared with the entire community. He knew Luminaria was a southwest tradition, and it can also be seen as homage to the plants. Community, plants and showing gratitude was the cornerstone of what Rodney was trying to celebrate,” says Wendy Hodgson, senior research botanist and herbarium curator and one of the only current staff members who was present at the first Luminaria. 

Luminarias are created using a brown paper bag, sand and a candle. At the first Luminaria, volunteers and staff spent hundreds of hours folding bags, filling them with sand and placing them around the Garden. At the last minute, before guests arrived, all 700 luminarias were lit by hand. As visitors made their way through the softly-lit Garden, cookies and hot cocoa were handed out. The evening proved a success, resulting in expanding to two nights, adding luminarias to the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail, and the inclusion of music the following year. 

Luminaria continued, always growing and improving with each year. Some entertaining highlights and interesting facts include:

  • Mariachi music was introduced in 1979 and continues to play a prominent role every year. 
  • 8,400 cookies were baked for Luminaria in 1986.
  • In 1987, staff and volunteers began folding bags in the summer months, and full meals were offered for the first time. History of Las Noches de las Luminarias
  • Six tons of sand was used to fill 12 nights’ worth of luminaria bags in 2003. 
  • Innovation was at an all-time high in 2005 when a butane lighter was created using PVC pipe and butane torches. This lighter enables faster lighting of candles without the hassle of bending over. In addition, a turkey baster, plastic tubing and a wooden dowel were put together to create a candle snuffer.
  • In 2006, faux luminaria bags were introduced. These bags are more fire resistant, hold up better in the wind and rain and provide a beautiful glow. They are also reusable each year!
  • It takes two months and 16 miles of twinkle lights to wrap all of the trees in the Garden.
  • Each night, it takes staff and volunteers an hour and a half to light all the luminarias in the Garden.

In the early years of Luminaria, volunteers had sole responsibility for the event. From setting up and lighting luminarias, to baking cookies and making hot cocoa, to designating where the Luminaria funds would go. The money raised was always reinvesting in the mission of the Garden, with some notable projects including a drip irrigation system and a security fence to keep the plants from being eaten by animals. As the popularity of the event grew and nights were added, the responsibility eventually shifted to staff members, with continued volunteer support.  

Many of the same traditions still hold true 38 years later. Luminarias are placed, lit and snuffed by the hands of staff and volunteers. Mariachi music greets visitors at the gate, and hot cocoa and cookies are still available to guests. New traditions have been added, such as twinkle lights on trees throughout the Garden and a dinner buffet in Dorrance Hall. Adding more nights, luminarias and entertainment to the celebration of Luminaria helps the Garden enhance its longest-running tradition every year.