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Our Town’s Dazzling Tradition of Luminarias

by | Dec 11, 2023

The tradition of luminarias dates back nearly 25 years in Davidson.

Started by a small group of neighbors a generation ago, a dazzling tradition of luminarias now unites our wider community

In late 1998, homeowners in the newly developed McConnell neighborhood decided to create a holiday tradition to bring the neighborhood together. Instead of exchanging holiday gifts of tchotchkes, cookies, and bottles of wine, the group decided to light up the neighborhood with luminarias. Neighbors were invited to make a small donation to support a local non-profit as part of the effort and come together on a single night to light luminarias on the sidewalk outside their homes.

The term “luminaria” is associated with the tradition of using small paper bags or lanterns with candles inside for decorative or religious purposes. The use of luminarias is thought to have spread from Mexican traditions to parts of the southwest United States, where they are most popular during the Christmas season. The homemade lights are a lovely symbol of hope, festivity, and community.

Holidays for Hope and Housing is now coordinated by and benefits the nonprofit Davidson Housing Coalition (DHC).

At first, the McConnell neighbors were responsible for finding and assembling their own bags, candles, and sand, but the lighting of the luminarias was a community event. Neighbors would set up their luminarias during the day or at dusk, then everyone would light their candles at precisely 6:00 p.m. on the third Saturday night in December. The effect was simple, folksy, and magical.

The McConnell practice of lighting luminarias spread to neighboring St. Albans as it grew, and for several years, the two neighborhoods combined efforts to make lighting kits and fundraise together under the name “Noel for Neighbors.” In 2005, recognizing that lighting luminarias could become a community-wide practice, one of the original neighbors reached out to Margo Williams to find out if Davidson Housing Coalition would be willing to coordinate the growing effort, with donations dedicated to providing affordable housing in Davidson. The tradition was renamed Holidays for Hope & Housing. This December, approximately 25 years after that small group of McConnell neighbors first lit their candles, these festive lights will illuminate nearly 50 neighborhoods in Davidson, Cornelius, Mooresville, and Huntersville.

Most families order a single kit of eight bags, enough to line the front of their home. Others request two or more kits if they have a larger piece of property or like to space the lights more tightly. Davidson Housing Coalition purchases the sand, the lights, and the paper bags, and provides the kits already assembled to a neighborhood captain.

In each neighborhood, designated captains are critical to communicating the precise date and time for the event, making sure lighting kits are ordered and delivered, records tracked, and donations counted. Every neighborhood functions independently, and each has its own neighborhood tradition for organizing the event.

Luminarias in the St. Albans neighborhood.

After the orders are taken, neighborhood captains often leave the assembled kits of sand, lights, and paper bags on their porches so that neighbors can pick them up anytime. Donations are slipped through mail slots, tucked under mats, or left in cardboard boxes on the front porches of the captains. It is largely an honor system, and it works beautifully. Donations come in all different sizes, but most people offer a donation that easily covers the cost of the kits. The average donation is about $50.00. You can also make a donation to Holidays for Hope and Housing on the DHC website. If you are interested in receiving a set of luminarias, you will receive a follow up email to request them.

Cambria Nielsen and Pat Latham have served as McConnell neighborhood captains for many years, and they have developed a highly evolved system for covering the large neighborhood. “We have a good system with 10 faithful block captains who make it easy and convenient for everyone,” said Nielsen. According to Nielsen, participation greatly increased during the COVID years when no one was traveling. Even though McConnell neighbors are beginning to travel more, enthusiasm for lighting the whole neighborhood has remained high. One generous man is planning to set out 24 luminarias on a large corner lot for his neighbor who will be out of town on Saturday. “McConnell residents have been lighting luminarias together for 23 years,” said Nielsen. “It’s a festive holiday tradition that truly connects us.” 

Jane Campbell, a former neighborhood captain in the St. Albans neighborhood, remembers one year where a generous neighbor dropped a check for $1,500 into an open box on her porch, no envelope or anything! “Everyone loves the luminarias,” said Campbell, “but many neighbors are using the lights as an opportunity to make a donation to the Housing Coalition because they believe in affordable housing.”

Already this year, more than 400 orders have been placed through the Davidson Housing Coalition’s event site. At the Sloan Street office, bundles of orders are hand-delivered in a steady stream by neighborhood captains.

Groups of young volunteers are an important part of the production of the lighting kits. Two advisory classes made up of approximately 30 high-school students from Community School of Davidson have devoted three community service days, one each in October, November, and December, to assemble kits of sand, votives, and white paper bags. Local girl scouts and a church youth group have also volunteered in the effort. More than 1500 kits have been assembled. Awaiting their delivery to homes, the assembled kits are kept safe and dry in a mobile storage unit donated by Port City Movers of Mooresville.

As the tradition has spread, the seasonal lights often create community in new and meaningful ways. In 2020, The Pines at Davidson displayed a gallery of 40 luminarias lit in remembrance of residents who passed away that year, a year of isolation, when funerals could only be attended via Zoom. By walking past the lights, each bearing the name of a fondly remembered neighbor, residents could create a shared experience so lacking during that time.

A special “In Remembrance” display of luminarias at The Pines in 2020 honored residents who had passed away.

In 2023, the SAGES (Senior Adults, Growing, Engaging, and Serving), a group from Davidson College Presbyterian Church, plans to join with the residents of Creekside Corners and The Bungalows for the lighting of luminarias around the residences. After the lighting, everyone will share cookies, rice-crispy treats, and an “add your own topping” hot chocolate bar. The hot chocolate and treats will be served at the Sloane Street Office and at the Bungalows rental office on Jetton Street. Christy Kramer, the chair of the SAGES Committee at DCPC, is excited about the new event. “The lighting of the luminarias is such a great opportunity for neighbors to connect. It’s a fun celebration that brings the whole community together,” said Kramer.

Davidson Housing Coalition’s Executive Director, Connie Wessner, has been a witness to the lighting of luminarias in Davidson from the beginning. She was one of the original McConnell neighbors who decided to create a bright new way of celebrating community.

To Wessner, the simple, neighborly luminarias and DHC are a good match. “Davidson Housing Coalition’s mission is to lead the effort to create homes that are safe, attractive, and affordable, and to keep Davidson’s doors open to people who want to call it home,” said Wessner. She is excited at how much the tradition has grown. “This event started with a single neighborhood looking to be festive and support good works in the community. Today, the tradition is nearly 50 neighborhoods strong and speaks to our community’s shared belief in the civic value of closing the housing gap.”

Luminarias will be lit on Saturday, December 16, 2023, with a rain date of December 17.

Photos from Holidays for Hope and Housing 2018.

Photos from Holidays for Hope and Housing 2019.

Photos from Holidays for Hope and Housing 2020.

Photos from Holidays for Hope and Housing 2022.









Lyn Batty

Lyn Batty, a Charlotte native, practiced law in North Carolina for 15 years before transitioning to academic librarianship and teaching. Lyn and her husband David have lived in Davidson since 2009. Lyn previously co-authored the “Common Laws” legal column for

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