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PHOENIX (Desert Botanical Garden) – Las Noches de Las Luminarias is one of Arizona’s longest-running and most beloved holiday experiences. Thousands of flickering luminarias transform the iconic Desert Botanical Garden into a desert wonderland that exudes holiday spirit at every turn.
The Garden is gorgeous any time of day, but when the sun sets and the luminarias are lit, it’s truly magical. Throw in a variety of music and the scents of warm cider and hot cocoa, and you could not ask for a more perfect setting for holidays in the desert.
From simple one-night event to 21-day extravaganza
Las Noches de Las Luminarias was the brainchild of Rodney Engard, one of the Garden’s former executive directors.
“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,” explains the Desert Botanical Garden’s website.
He did, and it was a gift the community has enjoyed year after year, decade after decade.
The first Luminaria in 1978 featured 700 hand-lit luminarias, which are brown paper bags with candles nestled in sand at the bottom. The Garden hosted 600 guests that chilly December night, and a tradition - what would become the quintessential Southwest holiday – was born.
In 1979, the Garden added a second night, placed luminarias along the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail, and included music.
This year marks the Garden’s 45th Luminaria, and some things are the same as they were in 1978. While there are more luminarias now – a lot more – Garden volunteers still light them by hand every evening and snuff them every night. The methods of lighting and snuffing, however, are a little different, as are the luminarias themselves.
Lighting and snuffing
Today, Garden volunteers use some unique tools innovated specifically for Luminaria, including butane lighters made of PVC pipe and butane torches. No more bending down to light every candle. The process goes much quicker. It takes about 25 volunteers roughly 90 minutes to light them all. Snuffing goes faster, too, thanks to a little contraption made of a turkey baster, plastic tubing, and a wooden dowel. Guests, especially the little ones, love to help snuff the luminarias, explained Marcia Flynn, the Garden’s senior director of event services.
“They don’t get to see the lighting part,” she said. “What our guests do see is us snuffing. They’re there at the end of the evening, and they’ll see the staff and volunteers going around snuffing. Everybody wants to help with it. Little kids are fascinated by it. They’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness! How can I do that?’ It is really fun to watch.”
As for the luminarias, gone are the brown paper bags. In 2006, the Garden switched to resin “bags.” They look real and have a gorgeous glow, but they are more fire-resistant and hold up better when Mother Nature sends wind and rain our way. The faux luminaria bags are reusable, as well, and they’re made in the USA.
New this year
While the luminarias will always be the stars of this show, the Garden has wrapped its trees with twinkle lights this year. That’s 16 miles of twinkle lights. And you thought you had a lot of lights to put up! Crews have been working on the project since the first of October.
Also new this year is an interactive fairy garden that guests can help build. It’s not a “make-and-take” thing. The fairy garden will stay at one of the Garden’s venues, but it’s something unique and fun for families, friends, and couples to do with each other.
“We’re trying to use as many natural elements [as possible] in the building of that,” Marcia said. “I think it’s going to be cool to see how it all comes together.”
The Garden also will celebrate the Mexican holiday tradition of La Posada on Dec. 18. Now, this one isn’t exactly new, but it is back for the first time since it debuted in 2019, before the pandemic. There will be two singing processions through the Garden, as well as pinatas to break and traditional food and drinks to savor.
“It helps people get back to the true meaning of Christmas,” Marcia said. “It’s a really beautiful tradition. We were able to do it that one year, and it was magical.”
La Posada festivities are included with Luminaria tickets, but the food is extra.
Eat, drink, and be merry
Luminaria features up to 10 acts each night at various spots throughout the Garden. From handbell choirs to brass, carolers to jazz, Native American music – you name it, you’ll hear it at Luminaria.
“I always like to say there’s something for everyone,” Marcia said. “There’s a huge array of entertainment. No matter what your musical tastes are, you’ll find something that I think you can really connect with.”
The Garden posted the complete list of this year’s Luminaria entertainment on its website. One thing in particular to note is the return of Simply Three. They describe themselves as a “classically trained string trio turned pop,” and they are truly fantastic. With their “old-school training” and “new-school sound,” Simply Three is immensely popular, “captivating audiences worldwide with high-octane performances.”
“They’ve been a huge hit at previous Luminarias,” Marcia said. “We’re excited to have them back.”
Bold, lyrical large-scale sculptures of Rotraut grace the trails of the Desert Botanical Garden
“They’re just stunning,” Marcia said. “They add that pop of color and that really fun, whimsical [look]. We love that we have an art exhibit that will be kind of incorporated with Luminaria and help inspire our décor, as well.”
Everything at the Garden will come together for the 21 spectacular nights of Luminaria.
“My absolute favorite event”
Las Noches de Las Luminarias is Marcia’s favorite Garden event. You can hear the smile in her voice when she talks about it.
“It’s the one event that brings everyone together,” she said. “It’s always got a really good feeling and spirit to it. An event like Luminaria really helps get people excited for the holiday season. It has such a warm and welcoming feeling from the minute you walk in. It’s a night to really pause and just take it all in.”
She’s not the only one who feels that way. Many Arizonans have made Luminaria one of their holiday traditions, sharing it with family and friends every year.
“We’re all moving so quickly these days. Taking that moment to spend with family and friends is so important, and this event provides the perfect opportunity,” Marcia said.
It’s no wonder it sells out.
“On any given night, we have approximately 2,700 guests who will come through our door,” Marcia said. “We do timed admissions so that everybody is kind of spread out.”
The week ahead of Christmas and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are especially popular. That means you need to go online and buy your tickets now. Marcia suggests doing it before Thanksgiving if you can.
Las Noches de Las Luminarias runs Dec. 1-31. That first weekend is just for members of the Desert Botanical Garden. It’s open to the public after that. Tickets are $39.95 for adults and $16.95 for kids 3 to 17. Children 2 and younger get in free.