With their penchant for making a party out of every occasion, Mexicans will finally wrap up the long Christmas holiday period (which began December 16 with Las Posadas and continued through January 6th with Dia de Los Reyes or Day of the Wise Men) this coming week with Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas), celebrated on February 2nd.

Candlemas, so called because this was the day that all the Church’s candles for the year were blessed, stems from Paganism; in pre-Christian times, it was the festival of light. This ancient festival marked the midpoint of winter, halfway between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox.

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Tamales with Squash Blossom, photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

“La Dia de La Candelaria commemorates the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of her son Jesus in accordance with Jewish law. Ritual purification stems back to a Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean after the birth of a child. For 40 days for a boy, and 60 days for a girl, women weren’t allowed to worship in the temple. At the end of this time, women were brought to the Temple or Synagogue to be purified” (Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, p. 119). This day also marks the ritual presentation of the baby Jesus to God in the Temple at Jerusalem. While it is unclear why these two holidays fall on the same day, the Gospel of Luke says that Jesus Simeon held the baby Jesus and called him a Light to the World.

(On a side note, February 2nd is also Groundhog Day, which owes its origin to Candlemas. There is an old European supposition that a sunny Candlemas day would lead the winter to last for ‘another six weeks’ from 123Holiday.net).

Dia de La Candelaria in Mexico

It all begins with the tradition of the Rosca de Reyes a ring-shaped cake shared on Dia de Los Reyes, which provides a clever way to extend the Christmas holiday celebrations for another few weeks. As with all Mexican holidays, it’s a family affair: On January 6th neighbors and family usually share the light evening meal, each having a chance to find the figure of Baby Jesus in their slice of the Rosca. The lucky guest who finds Him is designated to provide tamales and Mexican Hot Chocolate (recipe) Dia de La Candelaria, February 2nd.

photo by Martha Silva: Finding the Bay Jesus hidden in the Rosca

Tamales: Communal cooking in Mexico

The name” tamale” or more correctly tamal —  comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli — and is masa steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper, which is discarded before eating. Tamales are made very much the same way today as they were by Aztec and Mayan women as far back as 8000 to 5000 BCE, with some minor modifications; and are an essential part of many Mexican festivals. Initially disdained by the invading Spaniards in the 16th century Mexico as food of the lower class, described here by Jeffrey M. Pitcher in his book Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the making of Mexican culture; this portable culinary wonder eventually won over the Europeans;

“part of the ongoing effort . . . to Europeanize Mexico was an attempt  to replace corn with wheat [which was introduced to Mexico by the Europeans  of the Spanish Conquest]. But [corn], native foods and flavors persisted and became an essential part of . . . what it means to be authentically Mexican”

Tamale-making is a ritual that has been part of Mexican life since pre-Hispanic times, when special fillings and forms were designated for each specific festival or life event. Today, tamales are typically filled with meats, cheese or vegetables, especially chilis. Preparation is complex, time-consuming and an excellent example of Mexican communal cooking, where this task usually falls to the women. Rather than being seen as demeaning, this opportunity for Mexican women to gather and work together gives them respect and power in their communities. Here, an abuelita (meaning “grandmother” but also a term used to refer to the oldest generation of women in the village) describes how the women gather to carry on a tradition that has been passed through the generations, making tamales de elote corn tamales):

“Three pair of hands, work together, seamlessly . . . in a process [that] includes husking the corn, cutting it off the cob, grinding the kernels in the molino [mill] with pieces of cinnamon, breaking fifteen eggs and separating out the yolks, opening cans of sweetened condensed milk . . . [and beating] all the ingredients together in the masa for a long time…. Next, we fill the husks with the masa [dough and]…sprinkle raisins on top. Finally we fold the husks to enclose the dough.” (Maria Elisa Christie in Kitchenspace: Women, Fiestas, and Everyday Life in Central Mexico)

Celebrate Dia la Candelaria at home

Even if you didn’t find a figure of Baby Jesus in your Rosca de Reyes on January 6th, do it like the Mexicans and make Candlemas an excuse for a cozy, warm mid-week gathering of friends; this is an easy fiesta to do yourself. For the more adventuresome foodies among you, try your hand at making your own perfect tamales, ( step-by-step instructions with diagrams). Find ready-to-use masa at La Palma in San Francisco’s Mission district at the corner of Alabama and 24th Sts. (they also sell pre-made tamales), but be prepared for a line out the door and down the block on any Mexican holiday where tamales are on the menu, as they are the only place in town which mills their own corn to make the masa. Easy fillings are stewed, seasoned chicken breast (with fresh tomatoes, sauteed Spanish white onion, a little garlic, salt and chipotles to taste) or, for a vegetarian option, try Rajas de Chiles Poblanos (poblano chili strips with Panela cheese,which is available at Casa Lucas on 24th and Florida).

If you would prefer to buy your tamales pre-made, then no one makes better tamales than Alicia of Tamales las Mayas. So add another holiday to your calendar and have a tamalada (tamale party) this Tuesday! Or, have an entire tamalda catered by Tres Señoritas Gourmet, a member of Private Chefs of the SF Bay.

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