Life + Culture

Dia de Las Velitas

The following is a post by Diego Alzate Correa, a doctoral student at The Ohio State University. He is originally from Medellin, Colombia and I have had the pleasure of celebrating Las Velitas day with him for many years now, such that I asked if he would share a bit about the tradition for us here:

Declared in 2015 as the happiest country in the world by WIN/Gallup International, Colombia is recognized by the numerous festivals, carnivals and holidays held all year long. Given that Colombia was a Spanish colony for several centuries a lot of customs were passed and imposed to its inhabitants, among them of course was religion. Catholicism is Colombia's predominant religion where it is practiced with outstanding fervor. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that 14 out the 20 official holidays correspond to Catholic Holy Days of Obligation.

Medellin, Colombia
One of the most traditional holidays in Colombia is the little candle day--Dia de Las Velitas. This holiday was established on December 8 of 1854 when Pope Pius XI declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Back then to honor Virgin Mary, candles were lit, starting a tradition of lighting candles each year on the eve before December 8.

Nowadays in Colombia, Las Velitas day marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Once it gets dark dozens of candles and paper lanterns decorate the facades of every house. Even though the celebration began for religious reasons, the tradition has been maintained through the years thanks to the most important part of the celebration: family gathering. 
In Latin America, and especially in Colombia, it is a tradition to celebrate religious events with your closest family members including, parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins. On December 7th the entire family begins helping with the preparations for this holiday, they cook special treats like natilla (corn pudding), buñuelos (deep-fry cheese balls) and hojuelas (a deep-fry pastry with sugar). When the time comes, candlesticks are organized in the front of each house either with long rows covering the entire house or making different patterns like flowers or hearts. Some candles are stood on the floor and others are placed in a little cardboard box (Farolitos) decor in the outside, or trimmed on religious shapes. The Farolitos are usually hung on a rope. 
This holiday is special for kids, on this day, they are allowed to play with fire; a lighter is passed to the oldest kid to start lighting the candles. Teenager and sometimes adults, have a traditional game called Candelada del Diablo (Devil’s fire). The game consists of a artisanal device made out of wire, candle wax and soda caps. The wire from a used sparkle is looped to hold a metallic soda cap. A candle is placed under the soda cap, and on it candle wax is melted. Once the wax starts to boil people spit on the wax causing a big fire (see video). A lot of people have a great memory of losing their eyebrows or eyelashes temporarily because of the Candelada del Diablo! Other people less fortunate have bad injuries on the face and even eyes and hands. Sadly Colombia is one of the countries most affected by burned children around December and most of the injuries occur on Las Velitas day.

A Cold Columbus Velitas Day, 2015!

If you look at the news about Colombia it is hard to believe that a country facing so many problems like poverty, corruption, and inequality could be named the happiest country in the world. But if you go a little deeper you may see that having a supporting family has a huge impact on how Colombians bear their problems. 
Living outside of Colombia has made me realize how unique our traditions are in Colombia. I have been in the United States during four consecutive Velitas days, and I’ve been lucky enough to find friends willing to light the candles with me and my wife. It does not matter where I am, my memories about Las Velitas will be always related with my family back in Colombia and now with my friends here.

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