February 2nd, Groundhog Day, is Candlemas in the Catholic faith, or El día de la Candelaria in Mexico. It is forty days after the birth of Christ, as well as the midpoint between the solstice and the equinox, and a sacred day in the Aztec calendar as the beginning of the agricultural cycle.
It is difficult to discuss La Candelaria without looking back to Christmas and the Epiphany (Día de los Reyes, January 6th). Traditionally, forty days after a baby’s birth—February 2nd if he was born on December 25th—his mother takes him out for the first time. Thus it is on this day that Mexican Catholics bring the baby Jesus from their own nativities to be blessed at church.
Also, earlier, on Día de los Reyes, many families ate a symbolic sweet bread into which was embedded a tiny figure of baby Jesus: If he’s in your piece, you are to supply the tamales for La Candelaria. The corn of the masa, of which the tamale is made, is a direct link between the ancient observance and the contemporary, for all that corn meant to the Aztecs and still signifies in Mexico today.
Last year, it was a Sunday, and I arrived before mass to find lines of people hugging the shady edges of the churchyard, waiting for the priest to bless the baby Jesus each had brought. There was logistical confusion as the church ladies organized everyone into two rows. The priest, Father Salvador, emerged and spoke briefly through a microphone, then walked down the lines sprinkling holy water on everyone before the crowd moved into the church for the service.
The baby Jesuses were light-or dark-skinned, dressed in pajamas or with gold crowns, life-sized or miniature. Most were cradled in the crooks of arms, their plastic halos endlessly slipping, others held absentmindedly, but all easier to handle than the real babies, who were heavy in the hot sun, squirming, and with bottles, sun hats and siblings to juggle.
Nell Farrell is a documentary photographer and writer specializing in Latin America and the U.S. Southwest, and author of the book Nicaragua Before Now. She lives in Albuquerque. This feature, with photographs made when she was living in San Felipe del Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico, was adapted from a series currently running in the New Mexico Mercury.