Yesterday morning I arrived in Mexiko again, after a one-week layover in Germany. Almost immediately I was made aware of the fact that I had unknowingly chosen a perfect date for arriving in Mexico, since February 2 is a special day for a number of reasons. Shortly after arriving, a Mexican friend wrote me with surprising enthusiasm that today was “Tamales day!” and that I must therefore find a good place in Aguascalientes to eat Tamales. Still a little bit dazed from my 20 hour trip, I wasn’t quite able to properly take his advice to heart, however, I was reminded of it by different people again and again that day.
To begin with, for those of you who are not perfectly versed in the plethora of dishes that is Mexican cuisine: A Tamale is a traditional dish made of a corn-based dough filled with meat, fish, cheese, or other ingredients which is wrapped in corn- or banana leaves and then steamed. Only the filling is eaten, while the plant leave wrapping is discarded. Tamales have a very long history, as Mesoamericans have consumed them for at least 5.000 years. And since a picture speaks a thousand words:
So far, so good. Like many things in catholic-conservative Mexico, this day has an important religious background. February 2 lies 40 days after Christmas and therefore 40 days after the birth of Jesus Christ, when many Catholics celebrate Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or Purification of the Virgin. According to ancient Jewish faith, a woman was considered “impure” during the 40 days following the birth of a son (80 days following the birth of a daughter, which I know is ancient faith but which I will leave uncommented). For this reason, the during that time customary “presentation before God” at the Temple in Jerusalem could only occur on the 40th (or 80th) day after birth. According to Jewish law, a firstborn was “property of God”, which is why a firstborn child had to be “bought back” from God through sacrifices. On the same day, the mother was “purified” during a ceremony. When taking December 25 into account as the birth of Jesus Christ, Mary’s ceremony was February 2.
For this reason, statues of the Christ child, which had been previously set up in nativity scenes in churches on Christmas, are dressed with little outfits. These outfits can be purchased at specific stores that sell nothing else but gowns in all shapes and sizes for this very event.
Officially, February 2 is known as Dia de la Candelabria, named after the Virgin of Candelabria, the central Madonna in the Basilica of Candelabria on the Spanish island of Teneriffa. A legend tells how a statue of the Virgin Mary washed up on a beach was found in 1392 by two native goat shepherds. In one hand the Virgin Mary carried th Christ child, in the other a candle. According to the legend, one of the shepherds threw a rock at the statue, immediately paralyzing his arm, while the other wanted to stab the statue and ended up stabbing himself. Every year, the Virgin of Candelabria is celebrated on February 2 (and August 15) throughout the Spanish-speaking world, when candles are lit in Catholic churches.
Finally, we are getting closer to answering the question of why Tamales, of all dishes, are consumed on a day of such religious importance. However, we have to first understand who actually makes these Tamales. This question is answered on Epiphany, January 6, when the three Magi arrived at the stable and bestowed upon Jesus their presents. On this day, Mexican families eat a cake that has a little figurine baked into it. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the figurine has to prepare Tamales for their family or friends on February 2. My dad’s office, for example, had a Tamales day lunch, where 17 of his colleagues brought a total of four hundred Tamales to work because they had been the ones to receive the figurines on January 6.
To understand why Tamales are eaten on this day, we have to look back into ancient Mesoamerican times. February 2 also happens to lie exactly between the winter solstice on December 21 (shortest day of the year) and the spring equinox on March 20 (one of the two days of the year when day and night are the same length). On this day, the ancient Mesoamerican societies blessed the seeds for the upcoming spring and prayed to the Gods for a plentiful harvest through offerings made of corn, such as Tamales. In these societies, corn played an incredibly important role: The Popol Vuh, the holy scripture of the Mayas based on their ancient mythology describes how the Gods tried several times, in vain, to create humans out of different materials, until it was finally corn which gave life to mankind. This life-giving quality of corn is still revered today.
It turns out, what was just a normal Thursday in Germany was a special holiday in Mexico with a history going back Millenia. The more you know!