The Candlemas Day culminates the cycle of Christmas festivities within the Catholic Church, but a look at its celebration in Mexico reveals very particular aspects that include syncretism with pre-Hispanic rites, becoming a complex festival, since in its essence it is also Hebrew, Christian faith, and even pagan cults from the Island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, merge.
It commemorates “thanksgiving” dating back to biblical times, when the firstborn of the Hebrews saved their lives from the Exterminating Angel. Dra. Carmen Anzures y Bolaños, a specialist from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), explained that in memory of this fact, according to the Law of Moses that is written in Leviticus, Jews had to present their first-born in the temple; 40 days after the birth of the child, when it was considered that the mother had eliminated any trace of blood resulting from childbirth, before this she was considered impure (the Purification of the Virgin Mary); Jesus Christ, being Jewish, was also presented by his parents, thus fulfilling the period for the ritual if it is counted from December 25 to February 2.
The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of the Child in the Temple, began to be carried out from the 4th century, and quickly spread to all the countries of the Middle East. When the celebration arrived in Rome, the Litany was included, that is, sung processions were added as part of the ritual; Later, in the 9th century, the festival was enriched with the ceremony of the Blessing of the Candles, from which the name of Candlemas Day comes.
Dr. Anzures y Bolaños considers that “the part of the Child Jesus could very well have been in some way mounted by the Catholic Church, taking advantage of the ceremonies that took place in this same period (at the beginning of February) in pre-Hispanic times, which for the peoples Mesoamericans represented the last part of the 20 days of their calendar. Fray Bernardino de Sahagun relates in his chronicles that sacrifices were made to the tlaloques (helpers of the god Tlaloc – the clouds), to ask for rain for the next harvests. For this, children were offered to them, they dressed them in gala clothes, and during their ascent, especially to the one known as Monte Tlaloc, they made them cry as an omen that there would be plenty of water”. Regarding the custom of tamales, the specialist comments that before the Conquest, in Mesoamerica different types of tamale were eaten in relation to the festivities of the agricultural cycle; “For the request for rain, the tamales were made with semi-bitter herbs -as penance or fasting-, which still remains in some rural areas of the center and south of the country for the planting to work.”
In our country, Candlemas Day has been celebrated since the beginning of the Colony, each region and ethnic group impregnates it with characteristics of its own culture. For example: popular dances, fireworks, processions, dawns, fairs, band music, theatrical performances, exchange of flowers, traditional dances, and of course, the blessing of the Child God are carried out.
In Mexico City and in some other places, it is customary that the person who took out the “doll” at the Three Kings Day snack, when splitting the “Rosca de Reyes” (an oval-shaped bread with dried fruit), becomes the godfather of the Child God on the Candlemas Day. To fulfill his task, the godfather or godmother must “lift” the Child from the Nativity scene (which was placed on the previous December 16, that is, the first Posada and must be removed until the 2nd of the Candelaria) where it was placed after lulling him, on the 24th of December before midnight, in the house that offered the afternoon snack on the 6th of January.
Once up he has to dress the God Child. The task of dressing God Child, formerly was a great devotion that was done with all the art, dedication, creativity and love possible, but now it has become commercial. There is a whole ritual for this purpose. The fact that tamales are eaten on Candlemas Day is not a simple gastronomic whim, but is closely related to the Catholic religious ritual substrate of the aforementioned celebration of the Virgin, and the syncretic inclusion of a food, the tamale, of pre-Hispanic origin, used as an important part in offerings to the gods of the Aztec pantheon. In addition, February 2 corresponded to the beginning of the first day of the first month of the Mexica calendar, called Atlcahualo or Quauitleoa.
National Institute of Anthropology and History
Dra. Carmen Anzures y Bolaños