The Luminaria tradition began in 1979 as neighbors came together to assemble paper bags containing a cup of sand and a candle. These bags were placed on the streets and driveways by volunteers and were lit by homeowners at dusk, illuminating the neighborhood on Christmas Eve.
Depending on who you ask, the story behind exactly how and why the tradition began varies.
Cheryl Sader, the tradition’s organizer for approximately 30 years, says it all began with Oakland Park resident Mary Jane Greene. When Greene passed away due to cancer, her husband allowed Cheryl to take over, carrying on a meaningful Christmas Eve tradition in the neighborhood.
What began as a small tradition celebrated by just a few streets quickly grew, year by year, until nearly every street in the neighborhood was participating. At one point, Cheryl recalls having nearly 3,000 Luminarias lit!
In the early years of the tradition, families that lived in the neighborhood would come out together to walk in the streets, hand out goodies ranging from candy canes to shots of liquor, and celebrate the holiday season with their neighbors while admiring the elegantly illuminated neighborhood. Neighborhood kids used to describe it as “Santa’s runway,” as the Luminarias make each home’s driveway bright enough for him and his reindeer to navigate.
When Heather, the current coordinator of the Luminaria, and her family moved to the neighborhood in 2012, her real estate agent told her about the tradition and explained how unique it was to the (North) Corals area, where she had just purchased her house. Heather says, “when you move here, you just know that this is what you do during Christmas time.”
The first year they were there she remembers the entire community coming out to volunteer. Heather recalls yard sales to raise funds for the Luminarias as well as dedicated volunteers who showed up to Cheryl’s house to prepare the bags.
While the tradition died down for a few years due to weather and difficulty finding volunteers, as many of the volunteers were kids who grew up, went off to college, and left the area, Heather and her friend Hayley Pedersen, a long-time, now former resident of Oakland Park revamped the tradition in 2020.
Heather explains, “When COVID-19 hit it became so much more apparent that people wanted simple traditions…simple traditions meant so much more during COVID.” She met Hayley on a walk through the neighborhood, and they decided to pick up the tradition where it left off.
The first year, Heather and Hayley didn’t follow Cheryl’s playbook. They took matters into their own hands and brought the tradition back to life. It was such a success, as neighbors all came outside and joined in on the event, that they continued the tradition in 2021, but playing by all of the original rules.
This year, the neighborhood had over 2,400 candles lit.
While Heather now coordinates the event, it is the hard work and dedication of each neighbor in the neighborhood that keeps this tradition alive. She says the Luminaria wouldn’t be possible – or as meaningful – without the help of each participating household.
One of her favorite parts about the tradition is the reaction of the legacy members. Some of the original participants of the tradition still live in the neighborhood and continue participating in the festivities today. They are incredibly grateful that the tradition has been brought back.
Cheryl Sader is especially thankful for Heather and other volunteers who are continuing the tradition that has meant so much to her for such a long time. Cheryl explains, “Traditions are so important to our lives, just the fact that it’s being continued and bringing the community together really warms my heart.”
Chris Landers, who grew up in Heather’s neighborhood, posted on Facebook ” Hello OP neighbors. Many of you are likely familiar with a tradition that started many years ago with lighting luminaries along the streets on Christmas Eve. I don’t recall the year it started, but it started in my childhood neighborhood between NE 15 terr and NE 18 Ave and between Commercial and Floranada….My wife and I want to bring that tradition to our neighborhood [North Andrews Gardens]“.
And she and Rae did it! They lit up NE 1st Terrace from Prospect all the way to Commercial.
As the tradition grows who knows how many more lives it will touch and how many more streets it will brighten.
Cassidy Webb is a Texas native and South Florida transplant. She grew up just outside of Dallas, TX, and moved to South Florida four years ago. She now considers Fort Lauderdale her home.
Cassidy is the project manager at a small digital marketing company and she enjoys freelance writing on the side. In her free time, you can catch her exploring local parks or taking long walks through the neighborhood with her dog, Bella.