Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Celebrating Light in February

Candlemas Day  (Candelaria in Mexico) is a week from tomorrow.  If you found a baby Jesus in your piece of the rosca on January 6th, you acquired the responsibility of hosting a meal on February 2nd for all of those with whom you shared the rosca.  It’s not an onerous responsibility to fulfill; you just need tamales and atole, the traditional drink that accompanies Mexican tamales.   You’d best be putting in your order with your tamale vendor now.  Good tamale vendors are almost always fully booked ahead for February 2.   If your tamale person has a proper shop s/he may also provide the atole.  In the absence of atole, hot chocolate is an acceptable substitute.   

Despite Mexico's popular cultural link between the cutting of the rosca on January 6th, and Candlemas, on February 2nd, the real link is based on instructions given in the Book of Leviticus (chapter 12, verses 1-8).  Teenage Mary, like all observant Jewish women, counted out two sets of days after giving birth to a first-born baby boy in the manger in Bethlehem.  First she counted the eight days to His circumcision and naming, a requirement for all Jewish baby boys.  And then, from that day, she counted an additional 33 days to mark the day she would take her newborn son to the Temple in Jerusalem, a requirement for first-born sons, in that way completing her own purification after having given birth.  

Perhaps understandably, our male dominated Christian clergy chooses to tone down the celebration of the circumcision of the baby Jesus -- prancing around its central meaning by calling it some variation of the Feast of the Name of Jesus -- yet it is a very important ceremony in a Jewish boy's life.  It is at his circumcision ceremony that he is given a name, becoming a member of the covenant established between Abraham and God.   On the eighth day after his birth Jesus joined the Jewish people, following the instructions given in the Book of Genesis (chapter 17, verse 12).  In other words, Jesus didn't become Jesus until eight days after He was born.  Though there is much debate about the actual date of Jesus’ birth, could this be the reason we start the Christian calendar on January 1st, not on Christmas Day?

At the Temple in Jerusalem the old man Simeon took the newborn baby in his arms and called Him a "light for revelation to the Gentiles,"  (Luke 2, verse 32) hence the name Candlemas in English, or Candelaria in Spanish. So while the circumcision of Jesus is a purely Jewish event, the Presentation in the Temple and the words of Simeon predicted the inclusion of gentiles.  

For many in Mexico, Día de la Candelaria brings the Christmas celebrations to conclusion.  The baby Jesus is removed from the manger scene dressed in new clothes, taken to Mass where it is blessed, and then put in a special place, usually on a chair, or throne, in a home altar for the rest of the year.  

Start noticing hand written signs in homes or shops which advertise "Se visten niños Diós".  Some baby Jesuses have been passed down through generations and are ceramic or made of carved wood so you'll also see signs reading "Se reparan niños Diós".  The traditional clothing is white and lacy, and white clothes are required for the first dressing of a recently acquired baby Jesus.  

The best place to see the baby Jesus hospitals and dressmaking is any large central market. In the week before Candelaria there will be seamstresses and repair people offering their services.  It is a fun place to spend a few hours and is a festival honored by all economic strata.  In the last days before Candelaria, baby Jesuses arrive at the markets and, whether they have traveled by foot, bus, or chauffeur, they will be lovingly carried in the arms of their owners. Tiny fingers will be carefully repaired, damaged eyes replaced, missing paint carefully reapplied.  Owners may choose to dress the baby Jesus in traditional baby clothes, or as the Pope, or one of the saints. However, some will choose miniature soccer uniforms, wrestler costumes, or whatever clothing has been made popular by recent television coverage of events.   

On Candelaria itself, the restored baby Jesuses, wearing their new finery and often seated in their chairs, are carried like Jesus himself, for presentation in the church.  There they will be blessed and, in turn, equally bless, by their presence, squatter's shacks and the homes of the very wealthy.     

While the Candelaria festival is observed in just about every Catholic church all over Mexico, the town most famous for celebrating the day is Tlacotalpan, Veracruz, a river port city at the mouth of the Papaloapan River, whose patron is the Virgen de la Candelaria.  On February 2nd the image of the Virgin will be taken in procession from her church to the pier where aboard a specially decorated fishing boat -- accompanied by a flotilla -- she will go out for a paseo on the wide river.  The festival begins on January 31 and lasts until February 9.  Part of it entails a running of the bulls much like in Pamplona, Spain.  

Tlacotalpan has been included in UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites because of its preservation of Spanish colonial and Caribbean architecture and urban layout.  Though the town suffered flooding last year I'm sure there has been a rush to get it in shape for this year's Candelaria festival.

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