Tamale Day, Candlemas and Masks in Patzcuaro, Michoacan

February 2, or Candlemas, is celebrated throughout the Catholic world as the end of the Christmas season. It marks the 40 days after the birth of Jesus, when Mary goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to purify herself.

In Hebrew tradition, this is the mikveh ritual bath. In Catholicism, it has become embedded in the cyclical annual calendar that marks the story of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Who could resist this one? Reminds me of papier-mache masks in Venice, Italy

In the mask-making village of Tocuaro, just outside Patzcuaro along the lake, master wood-carvers make masks depicting the devil. The masks become part of an elaborate costume for Candlemas re-enactment in the church courtyard on February 2, starting at 5 p.m.

Elaborate, wood carved mask with embellishment

The re-enactment is like a play that depicts the forces of good and evil. The hero Michael Arcangel fights and slays Lucifer, represented by three devils, forever banishing them from earth to the underworld. The masks and costumes are elaborate and scary, especially for children.

Getting his mask fitted

During the conquest, throughout Mexico, priests from the Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian orders, integrated Catholic rites with indigenous practices. This is called syncretism.

Mask-maker Maestro Felipe Horta, Tucuaro
This guy is scary — elaborate costume with horned mask

Candlemas marks the end of winter and the beginning of the planting season when days begin to lengthen and the earth warms for plowing. In ancient times, this was signaled by the alignment of the stars of Orion.

A whirling Lucifer with eagle wings spread
Lucifer and the shepherds

With the conquest, the agricultural cycle aligns with the Christian calendar and the beginning of Lent. Spiritual forces of light prevail and overcome darkness, allowing the “light of Jesus” to enter the world.

At the 40-day mark, Mary brings baby Jesus to the Temple for the priestly blessing, bringing candles for the altar. Hence the name Candlemas. The term Pastorela refers to procession of shepherds who accompany her. This officially marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the next cycle, the Easter season.

We learn all this through our Patzcuaro guide Jaime Hernandez Balderas as our Michoacan Folk Art Study Tour participants enjoyed an afternoon with famed mask-maker Felipe Horta and his family before going to the Pastorela at the church.

Why is February 2 called Tamale Day in Mexico?

In Europe, bread is the offering. In Mexico, it is corn. Let’s go back to Christmas and January 6, Three Kings Day or Epiphany. Every family celebrates by eating a piece of Rosca de Reyes. Hidden inside is a baked-in plastic figure of baby Jesus. Whomever gets the little doll is blessed with providing tamales for the entire family on Candlemas. Sometimes, this requires feeding several hundred people. So, now, we can find eight or ten figures baked inside the large round loaf to spread the expense.

Rosca de Reyes, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
Elaborate eagle and serpent cape worn by a Lucifer

2 responses to “Tamale Day, Candlemas and Masks in Patzcuaro, Michoacan

  1. So interesting. All I saw in Ajijic was a tent of things for sale. Heard fireworks early AM.
    Thanks for sharing this.

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