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Lighting up memories at Mount Calvary Cemetery

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Tina Martinez lights a luminaria at the Mount Calvary Cemetery on Sunday evening at the grave site of her mother, who passed away four years ago. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For most of the year, Mount Calvary Cemetery is a place of quiet, reverence and solitude. But each Christmas Eve, the memorial park bustles with laughter and prayer, quiet tears and the occasional jingle of bells.

Hours before sunset, hundreds of people set to work decorating the graves of lost loved ones with luminarias and other holiday decor.

John Swiderski lights a luminaria at the Mount Calvary Cemetery grave site of his wife, Barbara Gutierrez, who died last February. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

By nightfall, the lawn blooms with potted and plastic poinsettias, and flickering luminarias coat much of the sprawling landscape on Edith and Indian School.

For Cecilia Pacheco, a visit to Mount Calvary has been a Christmas Eve tradition since 1970. On Sunday, she and her family outlined the graves of four generations with luminarias. It’s a way to celebrate and remember siblings and parents, to share stories and memories.

“We feel closer to them,” she said. “They’re with us all the time.”

Laura Butterworth and her father, Paul Butterworth of Teaneck, N.J., place flowers and luminarias on a grave site at Sunset Memorial Park. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The group said the Lord’s Prayer around a grave in which Pacheco’s sister and two nephews are buried.

The dozen or so family members did a final check to make sure each luminaria candle was lit, and then headed off to a New Mexico Christmas Eve dinner at Pacheco’s home.

Across the cemetery, Barbara Evans and her husband Ray stopped to place candles and decoration on the headstones of friends and family. It was their fifth cemetery visit of the day and they planned to return after dark to light candles.

Although the Evans are native Texans, Barbara said she fell in love with the New Mexican tradition and adopted it as part of her holiday schedule when her dad died in 1987.

Mariah Garcia, 14, left, and her grandmother, Michelle Garcia, carry Christmas decorations through the Mount Calvary Cemetery as they decorate and visit the graves of family and friends Sunday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“There was just something special about it,” she said.

Evans and her mother used to spend Christmas Eve at Mount Calvary together visiting her father’s plot. Now, she also decorates her mother’s grave, and she hopes her son will carry on the tradition when she’s gone.

“It’s the honor of being remembered,” she said. “That’s all.”

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