A Holiday Tradition

Burns Bright Across Cary

By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor

Drive through Cary neighborhoods on Christmas Eve and you will be met by a wonderland of sparkling magic. No, there most likely won’t be snow, but there will be a tranquil scene as thousands upon thousands of candles line the streets, softly glowing and illuminating the way.

Light is a symbol of many things: an invitation, celebration, remembrance, and hope in the darkness. Throughout history, candles have been used in many religious traditions and ceremonies. Luminarias, meaning festival lights, traditionally were small bonfires lit to welcome visitors and to commemorate holidays in New Mexico. The Southwestern custom is thought to have originated with Spanish merchants who discovered paper lanterns on their travels to China and brought the idea back with them. They created luminarias, their version of paper lanterns, to be used during the Christmas season. Today, many homeowners also view luminarias as a more secular holiday decoration, much like colorful strings of Christmas lights.


Although it is difficult to pinpoint the first use of luminarias in North Carolina, in Cary the tradition started in 1973 with Boy Scouts Troop 208. Scoutmaster Don Simmons found himself sitting by a man on an airplane who suggested the troop sell luminaria kits as a fundraising project.

And so it began: One of the most important things the troop had to do that first year was explain to Cary residents what luminarias were and the purpose they served. The first two neighborhoods to set out luminarias were Greenwood Forest and Tanglewood. In the first year, 452 homes participated. It has grown into an annual tradition throughout the community, and today several hundred thousand luminarias light up streets in neighborhoods all over the Cary area.

While some homeowners head out to purchase paper bags, sand, and small candles to create their own luminarias, others look forward to purchasing kits that support local Scouts troops. Don Fick, director of the annual luminaria program, estimates that at least21,000 kits will be delivered by Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and American Heritage Girl troops and Venturina crews in the Cary area this December, with troops ringing more than 60,000 doorbells.

Longtime Cary resident Jennifer Blanton says her favorite part of the tradition is the memories of Christmases past and the heartfelt feeling that this ritual evokes. She enjoys seeing the same neighbors light candles from year to year. “It’s peaceful,” she says. “I get up during the night and look out the window. The streets are all lit up, and it looks like a path. I like to think it’s a path leading us to hope and peace.”

Even though luminarias are traditionally lit on Christmas Eve, the spirit of the tradition encompasses more than a single day. It is a beautiful way for neighborhoods to celebrate community during the holiday season. Residents can set out candles—whatever that light might represent for their families—knowing that when all of the lights are shining together it’s a tangible representation of what connects each of us.

Fick says the Scouts put in a lot of hard work for the luminaria project, but it’s all worth it when they experience the benefits on Christmas Eve. “It’s really a rewarding feeling to be contributing to this tradition,” he says. Blanton couldn’t agree more. “It gives you a sense of community,” she says. “We’re all doing this together.”

Beginning on December 1st, troops will be delivering luminaria kits on weekends. A donation of $7 per kit is suggested and appreciated. Troops use the funds to support operations in a variety of ways including summer camp scholarships, general operations, and service projects.