Mexico’s Fiesta de la Candelaria ends Christmas with a bang

A traditional Candlemas celebration in the southern Mexican town of Tlacotalpan combines mischief and heartfelt adoration of the Virgin Mary.

Boaters ride along the Papaloapan River during the annual Virgin de la Candelaria procession in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz, on Feb. 2, 2019. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

TLACOTALPAN, Mexico (RNS) — Each February for more than 100 years, inhabitants of the small town in southern Mexico have honored the Virgin de la Candelaria in a weeklong festival marking the end of the Christmas season.

The Fiesta de la Candelaria — called Candlemas in English-speaking areas of the world — marks the day the baby Jesus was presented in the temple in Jerusalem. In Tlacotalpan, a statue of the Virgin Mary carrying the baby Jesus is brought by boat on the Papaloapan River and paraded through the streets to be presented at the church.

Bulls are thought to have been offered originally by rich locals for slaughter during Virgen de la Candelaria celebrations. Today, young men try to have informal bullfights with the zebu bulls. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

As she has for more than 100 years, the Virgen de la Candelaria processes through the town of Tlacotalpan, in southern Mexico, on Feb. 2, 2019. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

The Virgin of Candelaria is thought to bless the city and its river port, protecting it against floods and granting abundant fishing.

Although it sounds innocuous, the festival has become controversial in recent years due to the town’s practice of releasing bulls during the festivities, an element unique to Tlacotalpan’s candelaria celebrations.

Traditionally, the townspeople run behind and mock the large zebus that are given their freedom in the streets. The bulls are technically not supposed to be touched, but with the consumption of the local “torito” cocktails during the festival, often to excess, the locals are known to force-feed the bulls alcohol, and bulls have been harassed, cut, stoned and even drowned during the event.

As evening comes on, paper and wood figures of bulls filled with fireworks, also called “toritos,” are set off along Tlacotalpan’s esplanade, which is filled with music and shouts and people dodging the fireworks.

La Fiesta de la Candelaria, like many venerations of the virgin across Mexico, is partly a chance to dance, drink and celebrate with friends, but many in Tlacotalpan attend to express thanks for a year of life, ask for help for the sick or for a lost loved one to return.

The celebration of the Virgin de la Candelaria has been celebrated for more than 100 years in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz. Tlacotalpan, on the banks of the Papaloapan River, is a port city near the Gulf of Mexico in southern Mexico. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

The main day of the Fiesta de la Candelaria, Feb. 2, culminates in the center of Tlacotalpan with the burning of paper and wooden bullfighting figures filled with fireworks called “toritos.” Running around the square until the fireworks go out signifies a cleansing of sins. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

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