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 Magos 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 mid point of winter, half way between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox.
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 (BBC website). 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
The tradition of the Rosca de Reyes, a ring-shaped cake shared on Dia de Los Reyes, provides a clever way to extend the Christmas holiday celebrations for another few weeks. As with all Mexican holidays, and much like the Posadas that begin the Christmas holiday season; 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.
History of the tamal
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 in Mexico are typically filled with meats, cheese, or vegetables, especially chilis. Tamales “originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BCE. Aztec and Maya civilizations as well as the Olmeca and Tolteca before them used tamales as a portable food, often to support their armies but also for hunters and travelers. There have also been reports of tamal use in the Inca Empire long before the Spanish visited the new world. (WIKI).
Tamales were initially disdained by the invading Spaniards in the 16th century Mexico, as food of the “lower class; as described by Jeffrey M. Pitcher in his book Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the making of Mexican culture,
“Although a poor coyote mestizo [half-breed]… Diego fancies himself a noble…..[however] His appetites betray his lower-class origins [as] He carries tamales….”
Oddly enough, their immense appeal must have finally convinced the Spaniards, as “Tamales became one of the representatives of Mexican culinary tradition in Europe, being one of the first samples of the culture that the Spanish conquistadors took back to Spain as proof of civilization” (WIKI).
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 a 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, follow Zarela Martinez (see video, above) and try your hand at making your own tamales. Easy fillings are stewed, seasoned chicken breast (with fresh tomatoes, sauteed Spanish white onion, a little garlic, salt and chiptoles to taste) or, for a vegetarian option, try Rajas con Queso (see recipe from Tres Señoritas Gourmet: Poblano chili strips with Panela cheese, which is available at Casa Lucas on 24th and Florida).
Looking tamales from one of the Mission’s steet vendors? The best puesto (stand) for these in SF is found on the corner of Alabama St., and 21st St. where you’ll need to brush up on your Spanish to order tamales de pollo, puerco o rajas for about $1.50 each.
If you would prefer to buy your tamales at a restaurant, then Roosevelt Tamale Parlor at 2817-24th Street (near Alabama) is the place. A San Francisco landmark (the original Roosevelt’s was founded in 1919 in the same locale), photos of old San Francisco and long-gone staff line the walls while the booths and decor have a definite old-school feel. All tamales are made with organic, stone-ground corn and there is variety: round tamales, black bean tamales served in a corn husk, sweet corn tamales (called canarios in Mexico for their pale yellow color) and plenty of options for meat-lovers and vegetarians alike. Expect to pay more than you would at the aforementioned puesto, though. Take-out by the dozen is the way to go if you are looking for good, inexpensive food; for $29-42 (half-dozen from $16), sauce is sold separately.
Finish off your cena, the final meal of the day in Mexico, typically served between 8-9 pm, you’ll want to follow this recipe for authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate, made the old-fashioned way.