By Ann Cipperly
Opelika Observer

More than 1,500 flickering candles line winding, sloping streets in the Collinwood neighborhood one night during the Christmas season to symbolize the guiding of the holy family on their journey to the manger where Christ was born. The 51st anniversary of the Collinwood Luminaries, an Opelika tradition, will be held Dec. 14 from 5- 9 p.m.
Along the candlelit drive, homes are decorated for Christmas, signs display Bible verses, and scenes throughout tell the Christmas story. Living scenes feature the shepherds, wise men and angels.
At the end of the path, a live nativity scene resonates the message of Christmas. Rick Lane of the First United Methodist Church of Opelika has worked many years with youth to participate in the nativity. Live animals are often included in the nativity scene.
While this is the 51st year, the entire neighborhood will participate in luminaries, a holiday tradition originating more than 400 years ago in Mexico, the first effort included only a few houses on East Collinwood. In 1966, Mrs. J.R. Fuller of the Twilight Garden Club suggested the idea to the club after seeing luminaries in Europe.
The following year with 15 families in the neighborhood at the time, the residents undertook the project. The late Aileen Samford and Lucy Salter were instrumental in organizing the event. Salter received information on the details of luminaries from friends in St. Simons Island, Georgia.
During the first few years, the residents of East Collinwood used an assortment of bags and candles. After West Collinwood Circle and Collinwood Street were added to the subdivision, the event became more organized. Paper bags and candles were ordered in order to be consistent throughout the pathway.
“The neighborhood has always seen the luminaries as its gift to the community,” explained Martha Hill, a Collinwood resident who has participated from the beginning when the first candles were lit.
“It makes Christmas special for children,” Hill said, whose children grew up looking forward to the annual family event.
Hill, who served as chairman several times over the years, feels the event keeps the neighborhood close.
In 1984, Hill, along with another neighbor, visited Southern Living magazine with information and pictures of the luminaries. Southern Living sent writers and photographers to cover the event and neighborhood party, which was held at Jane and Jacob Walker’s house. The following year, the event and recipes from the party were featured in the Christmas issue.
The preparation in setting up the candles involves the entire family. Yards are raked and neatly groomed. Children in the neighborhood assist older residents.
A few days before the event, sand is delivered to several locations around the neighborhood. Three to four inches of sand is placed into a plastic bag, then into a paper bag, with the top folded down two inches to add rigidity.
The day of the luminaries, bags are placed 20 inches from the curb and spaced evenly for uniformity. City sanitation and power employees assist in getting ready for the event by cleaning streets and turning streetlights off.
Ruth Torbert is chairman of this year’s luminaries, and Dave Pillow has worked on the project the past few years to bring the signs to the luminaries event. “The pathway to the Christ child represents the story of the Birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Pillow said.
The luminaries begin at 5 p.m. at the corner of 10th St. and Collinwood St. Motorists should turn off their headlights as they slowly drive one way through the neighborhood, which is transformed into a Christmas wonderland.