By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Although it is generally perceived as a minor holiday, the observance of Candelaria Day, or Candlemas, on Feb. 2 is in fact a long-standing festival in Mexico that officially marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season.
In Mexico, Candelaria is closely interconnected with another post-Christmas holiday, the Three King’s Day, when not only do children receive the bulk of their holiday gifts, but friends and neighbors come together to share a traditional sweet bread called Rosca de Reyes.
Hidden inside the bread is a small figurine that represents baby Jesus, and the person who gets it in his slice is charged with hosting a Candelaria party of atole (hot corn broth) and tamales.
In many small towns across the country, the baby recipient is also responsible for dressing the Christ child of the local Nativity scene.
As the “godparent” of the Nativity’s Christ child, it is his or her duty and prerogative to dress the child and take it to a special mass to be blessed on Candelaria Day.
The origins of the celebration are somewhat vague, dating from very early Christian times, and are apparently tied to an ancient Jewish tradition of presenting a newborn child at the temple on the 40th day after its birth.
Christians adopted the Candlemas celebration as their own, and it began to be associated with the Virgin Mary, often assimilating local pagan traditions into the day’s festivities.
There is an association between the date and Imbolc, one of four principal Celtic festivals dedicated to the start of spring.
The U.S. Groundhog’s Day, which also follows on Feb. 2, is likewise linked to Imbolc, although there is no religious significance to that observance.
Before the Western adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the day fell around the time of the spring equinox.
The term Candelaria refers to an old Roman practice in which a priest would bless the aspergillum candles that would be used by the church throughout the rest of the year.
In some Christian cultures, candles are still blessed on this date and distributed to the faithful for use in the home, hence the name Candelaria.
Here in Mexico, many rural communities see Candelaria as a time to bless the seeds for the new year’s sowing, as well as the candles that will be used for religious purposes.
Anthropologists believe that the practice of blessing of agricultural seeds has to do with a pre-Hispanic Aztec ritual at the beginning of Mexica calendar year, which coincidentally falls on the second day of February, when people honored the gods with contributions of freshly made tamales.
This year, the northern central Mexican state of Zacatecas is hosting a two-week Candelaria festival in the pueblo mágico (magic town) of Sombrerete, replete with a beauty pageant, horse shows and a parade of the newly clothes Baby Jesus, running from Jan. 20 through Feb. 4
Here in the capital, most Catholic churches have special masses to mark Candelaria Day.
The most famous of these services is held in the San Bernardino parish in Xochimilco, where the Niñopan, or attired Jesus figure, is given his own ceremony.