In Mexico February second is Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, the day that marks the end of the Christmas season. It falls exactly forty days after Christmas because according to Jewish tradition women were considered unclean after birth for forty days and it was required of them to wait that period before bringing their newborn babies to the temple.
This ceremony in Mexico is known as levantamiento del nino Jesus or the raising of the baby Jesus. Many Mexican families own a doll baby Jesus that is placed on Nativity scenes at home on Christmas Day. On February second it gets dressed up and taken to church to be blessed. This is also the day when Nativity scenes, quintessential part of Christmas decorations in Mexico, are put away until the following Christmas season.
The name Candelaria comes from the tradition of blessing the candles and giving them to churchgoers that day. The candles are reminders of the Christmas lights and symbolize the words to Joseph and Mary that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Mexican Catholicism is a mixture of indigenous and Christian beliefs. It’s interesting to note that for many pre-Columbian civilizations the beginning of the year was in the middle of winter, around the first days of February in our calendar. To this day, many indigenous communities take the corncobs that will become the seeds for the next sowing season to the temple (Catholic churches) to be purified and blessed. This is one of the many traditions that survived the conquista and is still an important part of many communities in Mexico.
As in any other celebration in Mexico, food plays a very important role in dia de la Candelaria. For this celebration people make and eat tamales, one of the most representative foods of Mexico. Last year I wrote about tamales after I made several kinds for the Foodbuzz 24 event and after I attended the Slow Food Tamalada (tamal dinner) held at La Fonda restaurant in Mexico City. However, tamales are such an important part of Mexican cuisine that I wanted to write some more about the tradition of dia de la Candelaria and the role corn plays in this celebration.
Zacahuil, the largest tamal in Mexico
There are several variations of tamales around the world made with rice, flour or other ingredients. However, tamales in Mexico are made with corn masa and wrapped in corn husks (totomostle), banana leaves, oak leaves or even paper and plastic, depending on the regions availability of wrapping materials. It’s believed that tamales have been consumed in Mesoamerica since around 5000 BC. Some historians even believe that tamales were consumed before the tortilla (that culinary engineering marvel).
I’m glad to see that tamales still have a very strong presence in the mexican diet. In Mexico City you will find tamal vendors in the mornings and evenings in many corners. One of the most recognizable sounds of the city is the Oaxaca tamal vendors on bikes that play a recording over and over again while they cruise the streets of the city:
In the next post of this corn series I will write about the importance of corn in pre-Columbian civilizations and some of the foods they made with it and are still an important part of the modern Mexican diet.
Enjoy your tamales and buen provecho!
If you want to make tamales, follow the following links: