Our Lady of Candles

It’s got a funny name, but Tlacotalpan, Mexico, is the place to go to celebrate the Presentation of the Lord. The town in Veracruz takes a whole week to do so.

Tlacotalpan, Mexico, is one of the prettiest towns you could find anywhere. Located on the banks of the Papaloapan River, it is 50 miles southeast of the city of Veracruz. With its vibrantly painted houses in tones of aqua, lime green, rose pink and yellow, it is picture-book perfect.

The powder blue Church of La Candelaria is framed by palm trees and the brilliantly blue tropical sky. Like all colonial churches in Mexico, it stands at the center of the town, overlooking the zócalo (town plaza). It is not surprising that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the town a World Heritage Site in 1998, citing its “fusion of Spanish and Caribbean traditions” and “exuberant styles and colors.”

But Tlacotalpan was famous long before 1998: As far back as anyone can remember, Tlacotalpan has been renowned for its unique celebration of the Feb. 2 feast of the Presentation of the Lord, referred to as Nuestra Señora de Candelaria (Our Lady of Candles) in Mexico: Instead of the customary procession of the statue of Mary through the highways and byways of a town, in Tlacotalpan, the procession takes place on the river, accompanied by hundreds of fishing boats, lanchitas (motorboats) and serenading mariachi bands. Throngs of well-wishers and Marian devotees follow along in rented boats or line the banks of the river to pay homage to their beloved Virgen, the patrona of the town. According to the book Santuarios Marianos Mexicanos, the river procession is “magnificent” and “unique in the world.” Others have called it a “marvelous spectacle.”

It is entirely fitting that such a celebration takes place on the river: “Tlacotalpan” in the Nahuatl language means “place between the rivers,” and from pre-Hispanic times, the Papaloapan has played a central role in the lives of the town’s inhabitants. The river has not always been benign, however; it frequently overflowed its banks, causing “deadly” flooding. It was at these times that Our Lady’s protection was particularly invoked. It is believed that this was the origin of the river procession: that Our Lady would bless not only the waters and the fishing but all the people in its wake.

Light of the World

The adult-size statue of La Candelaria was a gift to the people of Tlacotalpan in 1776 from the Spanish hacienda owner Pascual de Ovando Rivadenyra. It originated from Cataluña, Spain. So appealing was this statue that it became the impetus for the rebuilding of the present-day church, La Candelaria, which was completed in 1779; it replaced the former church, which was destroyed by fire in 1698.

The remarkably life-like statue of La Candelaria is surprising in many ways: Although it is well over 200 years old, its face and expression are those of a “modern-day” young woman. She looks not at all ethereal, but like someone you could meet at the local market any day of the week. The tall, slender figure has enormous, expressive eyes and delicate facial features, with just the slightest hint of a smile. Mother and Child are dressed in exquisitely embroidered, matching garments. There is another aspect unique to this statue: Mary is holding her Infant in a manner different from any statue I have seen before — it is as though she is preparing to present her Infant to the world, to us in the pews or to the Lord, which seems perfectly appropriate, because this is what this feast is all about.

“Candlemas” comes from the Latin festa candelarum, which means “festival of candles.” The Feb. 2 feast day is very popular in Mexico, much more so than in the U.S. or Canada. The feast commemorates a double celebration: the purification of Mary and the presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple. By participating in such an event, Mary and Joseph are fulfilling the demands of the Mosaic Law (not that Mary had to be purified!). It was the custom for Jewish women to remain in semi-isolation for 40 days after childbirth, after which time they would present their first-born son to the Lord (Exodus 2:12) It was at this stage that the Holy Family would have their momentous encounter with the prophets Simeon and Anna (Luke 2: 22-39). Candles and processions have long been associated with the feast of the Presentation: The candles represent Christ who is the Light of the world, and the processions represent Christ’s entrance into the Temple.

The festivities in Tlacotalpan take place from Jan. 31 to Feb. 9: Bands, fireworks, symphony orchestras, fandango dances, theatre groups, art exhibits, delectable foods and “the running of the bulls” are all part of the jubilant celebration.

But Feb. 2 is the focus of it all: At dusk on this day, La Candelaria is escorted from the church to the wharf; there, she begins her annual pilgrimage on the waters. Thousands of candlelights flicker through the night sky as the Virgin glides serenely down the Papaloapan, bestowing her blessings on all. Later, she is processed back to her church to be placed, once again, above the major altar, where she is flanked by the statues of the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

‘If You Are Weary’

The Infant Jesus is also “presented” once more in the church of Candelaria. And what a church it is! Based on the architectural plan of the Latin Cross, it is a combination of several styles: Spanish, Mudejar and late-Baroque, all blended into a harmonious whole. The single-nave interior, in the neoclassical style, is a sumptuous array of pink and blue painted surfaces, sparkling chandeliers and indigenous crafted vegetable and floral motifs.

After the celebration is over, the people of Tlacotalpan go home, happy but weary, for this has been a long day: The festivities began early, with “Las Mañanitas,” birthday songs to the Virgin, at 5 a.m.

Spanish poet Julio Sesto wrote these words after visiting Tlacotalpan: “Oh, my brother, if you are weary of suffering, go to the Papaloapan — everything is cured in Tlacotalpan, everything is forgotten.”

Where La Candelaria is always ready to lend a helping hand.

Mary Hansen writes

from North Bay, Ontario