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Since You Asked: Medford luminarias a Mexican tradition, via Ogden

Dear information gurus: I love your columns ... your sarcasm gives me my first chuckle of the day!! Keep up the good work!! My questions involve the beautiful luminaries that are exhibited at Christmastime at the Siskiyou Park Cemetery on Siskiyou Boulevard. What organization does this? How did this tradition get started? Why did they only do it on Friday, Dec. 21? Any other detail you can provide regarding this would be greatly appreciated. I have several family members (from other areas) who were all very curious about this and also very impressed. Thanks ... love you guys ... have a wonderful and thought-provoking 2008!!!

— E. Scott, Medford

OK, mom, we asked you not to embarrass us at work! Seriously, Ms. Scott, we are honored to be held in such high esteem by our reader! For the record, we think you're pretty awesome yourself.

OK, enough backslapping. Let's get to work.

First, they're actually known as luminarias, or farolitos ("little lantern" in Spanish). (Although "luminarias" and "luminaries" have similar etymological roots, "luminaries" are celestial objects that give light or "a person who is an inspiration to others or who has achieved eminence in a specific field.")

The tradition originally started in Mexico and became popular with the Pueblo people of New Mexico burning bonfires in front of their homes on Christmas Eve, according to the American Heritage Dictionary Fourth Edition. The idea is to light the way for Mary and Joseph to find a place for a nice sit-down. As it evolved into the small paper lanterns, it spread around New Mexico and then around the nation. Albuquerque, N.M., is famous for its dramatic holiday luminaria displays.

To find out about the local tradition, we called Siskiyou Memorial Park on Thursday and spoke to receptionist Ranae Hill, who had the misfortune of just coming down with our cold. Forgive us, Ranae, please.

Hill said the cemetery's owner, Mike Leavitt of Ogden, Utah, brought the display idea over from a cemetery he operates in his home state. She said they planned to put up the display Sunday, Dec. 23, but it didn't work out and instead Friday, Dec. 21, was chosen.

Hill said there were more than 3,000 luminarias at the Medford cemetery this year, and they use special long-burning candles that last from dusk till dawn. The setup work starts in October with the cemetery staff and employees at Perl Funeral Home taking part. She said volunteers are welcome to help.