This morning on Feb 2, the fireworks have been excitedly firing into the skies above Oaxaca city all day and the church bells enthusiastically ringing, calling their faithful to mass in 16-17th century cathedrals. Inside the churches, people holding up lit candles in one hand while cradling elaborately dressed dolls in the other.
Walking down the streets of centro Oaxaca today, many people are carrying baby dolls. Some are real baby sized and others are miniature babies, small as the size of a palm. Some sit on wooden chairs while others are bundled up in blankets and cradled as people carry them through the street. They are all elaborately dressed in robes with satiny fabrics, often heavily embroidered with gold or silver trim. Sometimes I did a double take and realize that the baby I thought this mother was carrying was actually a doll.
In the land where machismo is prized, there has to be a story when you see a strong, stoic looking teenager carrying around a baby sized doll in a fancy pink robe walking down the street.
I found out that today is Dia de la Candelaria, or Candlemas in English. These dolls are Ninos Jesus, Baby Jesus, that families have in their home altar. On February 2nd, people dress up their Baby Jesus figures, buying new outfits that are sometimes more costly than the clothes they buy for their children, and then bring them to the church to have him blessed. The traditions recalls how it was customary during the times of Mary, Joseph and Jesus for women to be sequestered in their homes with their newborn child for 40 days after birth. February 2nd, 40 days after December 24, would have been the day that Mary took Jesus to the temple to be presented and blessed. Here in Mexico, this event is vividly reenacted every year as Baby Jesus is placed into nativity scenes on December 24 and then taken to the cathedral on February 2nd. While this tradition is slowly dying out in many cities in Mexico, it still seems to be very much alive in Oaxaca. Our hotel filled up with a group of 40 people yesterday who have arrive in the city for this occasion and there windowed showcases in stores full of baby dolls, dresses and accessories.
In the first year of having the Baby Jesus figurine, he is dressed all in white. In the second year, he can start wearing coloured clothing and then in the third year, he can be dressed like royalty with crowns, thrones and other accessories. People treat these holy dolls like live babies, cradleing them around gently in their arms, wrapping them in blankets so they don’t catch a cold and cooing to comfort them. Apparently, Baby Jesus figures sometimes have godparents who rock the baby to sleep on Christmas, bring him presents on the Day of the Three Kings and go with the family to the church on Candaleria to bless the child.
Los Ninos, the holy dolls, are household incarnations of Baby Jesus but they are also more than that.
Families get a Baby Jesus doll with the birth of their first child after marriage. For the first year of a child’s life, the doll is dressed in the white baptism clothes. After the first year, families can change the clothes to those of different saints or the pope so the child can absorb some of their saintly characteristics. You can also dress your doll up as a doctor, if you want your child to become a doctor. The dolls are always dressed up as a male even if the first born child is a girl because Jesus is male. This tradition emphasizes the sacredness of all children and also reveals how Catholicism has combined with local beliefs and customs including magical aspects where families hope to influence saintly development in their children by acting on these sacred dolls — a Catholic voodoo doll in some ways.
After Baby Jesus has been dressed, presented and blessed, people celebrate with fiestas that punch the skies with loud fireworks. When we were riding through the hills before Oaxaca, we camped at a churchyard at a remote ranch. A party gathered around us at the church where people cut the Roscas de Reyes, the Three Kings cake, which has a tiny plastic Baby Jesus figurine about the size of a pinky finger. Whoever got the Baby Jesus hosts a tamale party on Candaleria on Feb 2nd.
I find it so interesting how Catholic traditions are combined with indigenous traditions and customs and have developed into something uniquely local. Dia de la Candelaria celebrates the presentation of Baby Jesus to the temple but also celebrates maize and has themes of lighting up the darkness as people light candles. Though it is a Catholic event, it speaks also to local traditions and predicting weather to come. February 2nd marks the halfway point between winter solstice and spring equinox. Interestingly, it is also the date of Groundhogs day back home in Canada, another event of marking the changing seasons. Maize was sacred to ancient peoples and the mural of Oaxacan history in the Palacio museum highlights a stalk of maize in the centre of the painting and the Aztecs believed that maize was used to first create humans. Tamales were used as offerings to ancient gods.Tamale parties thrown on the Dia de la Candelaria are in honor of both Baby Jesus and pre-Hispanic traditions.
For those without a preplanned tamale party and because Oaxaca is just that amazing, the city is throwing a party tonight. Our day today has been split between wandering around the streets and churches of the historical centro, then having ice cream and watching the state orchestral band perform in the zocalo, watching the NFL Superbowl game and then heading out to the city fiesta. The city set up a stage by Santo Domingo church and the Orchestra Primavera Oaxaca played traditional Oaxacan songs while an amazing tenor sang. Different from watching the orchestra at home, people would start clapping right in the middle of a piece after parts that the audience felt were played well and people would sing along to the songs. Candles were passed out and lit while we listened. After, they served tasty tamales and atole to the eager crowds of celebrators. Bryan and I had dulce tamales, sweet tamales with raisins, pineapples and a red sweet sauce soaked into the moist cornbread.