LumiNight: A Love Letter to Winter in the Desert

| |

In mid-December near downtown Tucson you might spot a procession of people in costume, lit up by homemade cardboard lanterns.

LumiNight 2013 crowd holding lanterns
LumiNight 2013; photo copyright Lisa Foote.

Called LumiNight, the event is “kind of like a reverse wintertime Halloween for grown-ups, complete with dressing up and running around at night,” says Jhon Sanders, who initiated the festivity to celebrate the dark and cold of winter.

Instead of asking for treats though, participants give them. “It’s like a potluck, where everyone contributes a little something,” Sanders says. Usually small, homemade gifts such as origami, poems, or candles, he adds. “It’s not a holiday guilt trip. It’s not supposed to be stressful. A lot of a little goes a long way.”

LumiNight 2015, peopple dressed outside someone's door.
LumiNight 2015; photo copyright Warren Van Nest.

But the focal point is light, cast by homemade paper lanterns and augmented by any configuration of string lights or EL wire.

Paper lanterns have been used to light up the darkness in most cultures of the world. In many Asian countries, lanterns are used both decoratively and ceremonially. Chinese paper lanterns, for example, come in all sizes and are used to create festivity in homes, restaurants, temples, and festivals. In Europe, paper lanterns carried by children during festivals both Italy and Holland. Closer to home, Mexican and Hispanic traditions often include luminarias—tea lights in paper bags lining sidewalks or roofs—during the holiday season.

For Sanders, lanterns are a way of announcing human presence to the elements, “A way of saying, we’re here and this is what our hopes are,” Sanders says. “Plus, they’re just beautiful.”

LumiNight 2015, people dressed in light gowns.
LumiNight 2015; photo copyright Warren Van Nest.

Playtime for Adults

Sanders grew up in Southern California and says he always welcomed the coming of cloudy, cooler weather in winter, especially during the holiday season. “I would get excited about the dark, rain, and cool. The gifts and little lights. The general air of festivity and sense of community when everyone seemed at least to get kinder. As a kid, you would feel all that,” Sanders says.

A man in a cap holds a lantern over a child.
LumiNight 2015; photo copyright Warren Van Nest.

While he later dropped some of the trappings of Christmas commercialism, he missed the lights and the magic of the season.

He was inspired, in part, by the work of City Repair in Portland, which held a small procession of lanterns one year along the Willamette River to commemorate the autumnal equinox. He also knew from his work with the annual All Souls Procession (he coordinates the Procession of Little Angels) that bringing people together to express “festal culture” was a powerful way to celebrate community, time and place.

For LumiNight, he learned to make simple lanterns of cardboard and paper from Mykl Wells, a Tucson artist and one of the founders of the All Souls Procession. Sanders occasionally offers public workshops before LumiNight to teach the basics and also posts tutorials on the event’s Facebook page.

While he originally envisioned a winter walk as a way to celebrate the season with friends, he moved the event to urban and residential areas as a way to share it with complete strangers. The procession gathers near downtown Tucson (often at the Rattlesnake Bridge) and travels through neighborhoods. Some wear elaborate costumes and there are usually one or two notable bicycles—like David Forbes’ “Loud Bike,” dressed up in fur of vibrant purple and blue hues with large speakers in back for music, and Zeke Cook’s “Bat Bike” with large, moveable, lit wings, Sanders says.

A small chuld un a blanket holds a paper lantern ball
LumiNight 2014; photo copyright Lisa Foote.

“Grownups often lack opportunities to play. So this gives them that,” Sanders says.

Of course, kids are invited too. They’re usually the ones sent to knock on front doors (“They are immediately disarming,” he says). “Then people notice the 30 or 40 others back there in the street, lit up with lights, ready to give them hot cider, cookies and gifts, and it’s all smiles.”

Beckoning the Darkness

While many cultures across the world celebrate the season with lights, LumiNight is not an imitation of other cultural practices. It’s meant to be specific to the desert Southwest in the 21st century urban environment, Sanders says.

LumiNight 2014
LumiNight 2014; photo copyright Warren Van Nest.

In other places, wintertime festivities can be a way of bracing against the harsh austerity of the dead season and looking forward to when the sun comes back. Here, it’s the opposite, Sanders says. “It’s a way of beckoning cold and rain and darkness.”

Sanders invites participants to bring whatever is relevant to them to the experience. He acknowledges that holidays in the United States are often a blend of many cultural expressions and that “Sometimes it’s hard for people to figure out what feels right for them,” he says. LumiNight is not a packaged event, so he encourages people to look inside themselves to find its meaning.

The event also makes room for sinister wintertime characters, such as Krampus, a half-goat, half-demon character said to punish children who don’t behave. For LumiNight, kids become the krampus in a role-reversal and punish the adults for being boring and unimaginative.

In some ways, figures like Krampus personify the dark side of winter, offering a counterpoint to popular notions of the holiday. “They’re kind of a slap in the face to all that, almost political,” Sanders says. “I love that. As a kid, I loved monsters and the fantastic.”

LumiNight 2016
LumiNight 2016; photo copyright Warren Van Nest.

This year’s LumiNight in Tucson takes place on Dec. 17 near downtown. Sanders encourages people in Tucson and other towns to create their own events in neighborhoods and urban areas.

“Now more than ever, things like this—which some might call frivolous and ‘just play’—seem vital,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for people to encounter each other pretty gently in a well-meaning and playful environment. We can use more of that. A lot more.”


For details about this year’s LumiNight visit the Facebook event page, here.

Also check out the Smithsonian’s guide to the origin of Krampus.

And here’s the web site for the All Souls’ Procession, including the Procession of Little Angels.

Leave a Comment

Skip to content