Creating Culture: A Gift for the Ages

Long-running tradition makes the Desert Botanical Garden shine

It began as a token of appreciation for the community. A holiday gift, lighting up the desert for one night, to thank those near and far who embraced the vision of the Desert Botanical Garden. The gift, thoughtfully made possible by the Garden’s former executive director, Rodney Engard, staff and a group of volunteers on a December night in 1978, was a sight to behold. The Desert Botanical Garden was sparkling, set aglow by hundreds of luminarias, illuminating the beauty of the Southwest.

And so it began, the making of a 45-year tradition known today as Las Noches de las Luminarias, the Garden’s longest-running tradition, shining bright for more than fourdecades with no end in sight.

Welcoming more than 50,000 visitors during its run each year, the experience is visually extraordinary. However, the magic behind the scenes, before the joyous seasonal event, is equally impressive.

What began as a volunteer effort has remained a “many hands make light work” effort. Las Noches de las Luminarias is made possible because of the commitment of more than 70 pairs of volunteer hands each season and cumulatively hundreds of volunteer hours dedicated to creating one of Arizona’s most beloved holiday events.

A well-oiled machine, the process leading up to the festivities commences with a call for volunteers on the Desert Botanical Garden’s website. Those serving as ongoing volunteers can express specific interest in helping with the event. Heading up the streamlined process is a mix of staff from event services to the horticulture team, who execute planning and prepping leading up to Lumi Bagging Day. That’s when the magic begins.

Lumi Bagging Day

Fueled by breakfast burritos and coffee, Desert Botanical Garden staff, community and volunteers gather bright and early in an all-hands-on-deck spirit, ready for assembly-line work to create each luminaria. The timing is precise as Lumi Bagging Day typically happens only a few days before the event opens to the public.

Upon choosing a position, volunteers take their place at various stations, including cleaning, filling, positioning and deployment. A demonstration of the luminaria components and order of operations happens, and then it’s go time.

Thousands of hand-lit luminarias will interweave with large-scale sculptures by Arizona-based artist Rotraut, making for a picture-perfect night

The Process

  • Wiping/cleaning the lumi bag

  • Filling the bag with decomposed granite

  • Placing the plastic souffle cup in lumi bag

  • Adding the wax candle to lumi bag

  • Moving the assembled lumi bags to flatbed carts

  • Deploying the lumi bags on trails


The well-orchestrated process takes approximately 3.5 hours and produces 8,000 luminarias. Once set in place, the luminarias stay in position throughout the entire Las Noches de las Luminarias run.

The event runs Dec. 1-31, with tickets for the general public at $39.95 for adults and $16.95 for children 4-17. Member prices are $34.95 for adults and $11.95 for children ages 4-17. Children 3 and under are free.

Bag Full of Wonder

The gift that keeps on giving has evolved through the years. As popularity increased, so did the sophistication of the luminaria components and the number of bags. New materials and different types of lights, including luminarias, twinkle lights and LED up-lights for exterior surfaces (electric and battery-operated) were incorporated, totaling nearly 200,000 twinkling lights covering trails, rooftops, walls and more.

In 1978, the luminarias were comprised of a brown paper bag, sand and a candle. In 2006, reusable bags made of ¼”-thick polyethylene replaced the brown paper and are used today. The sand that once filled the bag has evolved into a decomposed granite, making for a sturdier bag. Meanwhile, a plastic souffle cup serves as a transparent and safe solution for holding the wax votive candle, providing the perfect golden glow.

Light It Up

You may wonder: All the pieces are in place, but who lights the candles? Allow us to enLIGHTEN you. Volunteers are not only instrumental in assembling the famed luminarias, but they have also been integral in the lighting of the lumi bags during its 45-year run. Back in the day (pun intended), it was a literal labor of love as volunteers bent over, butane lighter in hand, to get the party started every night of the event.

In 2005, the Garden innovatively attached a butane lighter to a PVC pipe, creating a three-foot-long instrument (and sigh of relief) to efficiently and safely light the now 8,000 wax candles on display. Today, it takes 20-25 staff and volunteers approximately an hour or less to illuminate the entire Garden, weather permitting. Volunteers also ensure bags remain lit along the trails each night of Las Noches de las Luminarias and are responsible for snuffing out every candle at the end of the evening. Snuffers, made of a turkey baster, plastic tubing and a wooden dowel, safely extinguish every flame in no time. The entire Garden turns dark in 15-20 minutes until volunteers again light up the night beginning at 4:30 p.m. the following day through the event’s run.

In addition to the magnificent lighting of the Garden during the holiday season, a variety of entertainment, from brass bands to bell choirs, add to the splendor of Las Noches de las Luminarias. The event also features a different artist annually, whose works are displayed along the Garden’s path, making for an all-encompassing experience for guests. This year, bold, large-scale sculptures by local artist Rotraut will be placed along the trails, while a selection of her paintings and small sculptures will fill the Ottosen Gallery. Cocktails, festive beverages, dinner and café options are available each evening, enticing guests to linger longer once the gates open at 5:30 p.m.

“Las Noches de las Luminarias is a fun, family tradition visitors can rely on every year,” said Amber Salazar, assistant director of Event Services. “The event embodies the spirit of the holidays. We are proud to deliver an enjoyable gift to the community, providing an experience like no other.”

For more on Las Noches de las Luminarias, visit

About Zenobia Mertel

Zenobia Mertel is Frontdoors Magazine’s Lifestyle Editor and covers a mix of Arts and Culture topics for the media company. She also works as an on-air host and columnist for Inspired Media 360, focusing on people, places, life and style.

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