02 February 2008

El Día de la Candelaria

Today in Mexico is “El Día de la Candelaria”, which in English is “Candlemas Day” or in the modern liturgy of the Church, "The Presentation in the Temple". February 2nd also marks the mid-way point between the winter solstice and spring equinox and has long been thought to be a marker or predictor of the weather to come, which is why it is also celebrated as Groundhog Day in the United States. In many places it is traditionally a time to prepare the earth for spring planting. In China, it is celebrated as “Spring Festival” or what people in the West call “Chinese New Year”. In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church it used to be called the "Purification of the Virgin" which commemorated the visit to the temple by the Blessed Virgin 40 days after giving birth for a "purification" rite which was required of women after giving birth by Jewish Law. The same type of custom endured in the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years and was called the “Churching of Women” although the custom has now fallen out of favor, especially since Vatican II.

I was born in 1947 and about 40 days after my birth my mother went to the church and was met by a priest who welcomed her and prayed with her. My mother repeated this with the birth of my sister, Suzanne, who was born 13 months later but my mother did not repeat the custom after the births of my brother Daniel or my sister Kathryn. It seems like the year 1950 was when this custom started to disappear and by the early sixties was all but gone. The ceremony was quite simple and basically went like this: The new mother, kneeling in the vestibule, or within the church, and carrying a lighted candle, awaited the priest, who, vested in surplice and white stole, sprinkled her with holy water in the form of a cross. Having recited Psalm 23, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof", he offered her the left extremity of the stole and lead her into the church, saying: "Enter thou into the temple of God, adore the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary who has given thee fruitfulness of offspring." She advanced to one of the altars and knelt before it, while the priest, turned towards her, recited a prayer which expressed the object of the blessing, and then, having sprinkled her again with holy water in the form of the cross, dismissed her, saying: "The peace and blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, descend upon thee, and remain forever. Amen.”

About the time of Vatican II the Church got to thinking about it and decided that since Mary is a virgin according to church doctrine then there really was no need for her purification except to comply with Jewish law so they changed the name of the feast to the "Presentation" to commemorate the presentation of the Baby Jesus in the temple. It is also the day when the candles are blessed. In Mexico, it commemorates the final end to the Christmas Season when the manger scene is put away and all the Christmas things are formally put aside for another year. Typically we have a special mass to remove the Baby Jesus from the manger and to dress him and put him away until next year. Before the mass gets started we all bring candles up to the front of the church for the priest to bless and then we light our candles from a special candle on the altar and go back to our pews and recite some prayers together while the candles are still lit. During the proceedings the Baby Jesus is removed from the manger and dressed in fine clothes and is set on a throne for the duration of the mass.

The ceremony of putting away the Baby Jesus is repeated in many homes. We kneel down by the manger near the Christmas tree which is often still in place and are led by the host or hostess in saying the Rosary. While we are saying the rosary someone takes the Baby Jesus out of the manger and anoints Him with perfume and dresses Him in fancy clothes and then set him on a little chair that is often covered with aluminum foil or other decorations to look like a throne. After the rosary, we are all given candles which we light and then we are led us in a litany to the Blessed Virgin. After the litany someone holds the Baby Jesus for everyone to kiss and as each person kisses the infant they are given a piece of candy from a little bowl. After that we sing a song and blow out the candles.

In Mexico El Día de la Candelaria is also a follow-up to the festivities of El Día de Reyes Magos (Three King's Day) on January 6th, when children receive gifts and families and friends break bread together, specifically Rosca de Reyes, the special sweet bread with figurines hidden inside. The person (or people) who received the figurines on El Día de Reyes Magos are supposed to host the party on El Día de la Candelaria. Tamales are the traditional food at this party.

In times past, Candlemas was the last feast in the Christian year that was dated by reference to Christmas; subsequent moveable feasts are calculated with reference to Easter, so prior to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Candlemas marked the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season. In Mexico the Christmas season lasts about six or seven weeks and goes from December 16th when the posadas begin and it doesn’t end until Candalaria. The present Roman Catholic calendar substitutes the Saturday before the Baptism of the Lord as the final day of the Christmas liturgical season. With Christmas officially behind us we now look forward to “Carnival” and the subsequent beginning of Lent, another 40 day period, and the countdown to Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Pascua (Easter).


Mexico By Hand said...

Thanks for the info, Bob! I will be checking out your blog more in the future and I hope you will take a look at mine!
Mexico By Hand

Suzanne said...

Hi Bob,
thanks for sending me this link. I was raised Catholic but to tell the truth have no idea how my baptism or presentation to the church, if any, went. Nor did I know about the churching of women. I will have to ask my half sister who was 18 at the time and might know more about our early religious life. I've linked this to my blog post because it is very informative and a nice addition to it.


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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.