Candles hold deep cultural and spiritual meaning in Mexican culture. From religious ceremonies to family traditions, candles represent light, hope, prayer, and remembrance.
Religious and Spiritual Symbolism
In the Catholic faith, which is the dominant religion in Mexico, candles represent Christ as the light of the world. They are used in religious ceremonies and rituals to represent prayers rising to heaven. Some of the key symbolic uses of candles in Mexican Catholic traditions include:
- Prayer Candles – Small votive candles are lit to represent prayers offered for special intentions or saints’ intercessions.
- Altar Candles – Candles on church altars and home altars represent the presence of Christ.
- Advent Candles – Four candles lit on each Sunday leading up to Christmas represent hope, love, joy, and peace.
- St. Jude Candle – Green candles are burned while praying to ask for St. Jude’s intercession in lost causes or desperate situations.
- Day of the Dead – Candles light the way for the returning souls and represent remembrance.
- Quinceañera – The Quince girl holds a candle representing her journey from childhood to womanhood.
- Weddings & Baptisms – Candles represent the light of Christ blessing these sacraments.
Beyond Catholicism, candles hold an important place in rituals of Santería, Curanderismo, and other African diasporic faiths. The flames represent messengers between the physical and spiritual realms.
In Mexican family culture, candles represent togetherness, celebration, and commemoration of special occasions. Key traditions involving candles include:
- Birthday Candles – Just like in many cultures, candles placed on Mexican birthday cakes represent wishes, fortunes, and hopes for the coming year of life.
- Christmas Velitas – Small votives are placed in paper bags filled with sand to line walkways and decorate homes at Christmas.
- Día de la Candelaria – On February 2nd, families take the baby Jesus figure from their nativity scenes to be blessed in a candlelight procession.
- Memorial Candles – It is customary to light candles in remembrance of loved ones who have passed away, especially on Day of the Dead.
Candlemaking itself holds cultural significance in parts of Mexico. Some key facts about Mexican candlemaking include:
- Talavera Candleholders – Brightly painted ceramic Talavera candle holders are an iconic Mexican folk art tradition, especially in Puebla.
- La Candelaria – For Candelaria day on February 2nd, decorative candles are made to be blessed by the church.
- Veracruz Wax Art – In Veracruz, molten candle wax is dripped to form colorful designs in a traditional technique dating back centuries.
- Witchcraft Candles – Magic practitioners like curanderos use candles in rituals for cleansing, healing, and casting spells.
- Day of the Dead Candles – Special candles depicting skulls, marigolds, and the departed are made for Day of the Dead altars.
Summary of Key Symbolism
To summarize, the main symbolic meanings of candles in Mexican culture include:
- Prayer and remembrance in Catholic rituals
- Guiding returning souls for Day of the Dead
- Wishes and hopes on birthdays
- Togetherness and celebration for holidays like Christmas
- Commemorating deceased loved ones
- Passing traditions through candlemaking folk arts
So in many ways, candles represent the light Mexico’s culture, family, and spirituality passed down through generations.
Religious Candle Traditions
Small votive or prayer candles are found in almost every Catholic church or home altar in Mexico. These candles represent petitions rising to heaven. Images like saints, the Virgin Mary, or the Sacred Heart are printed on glass candles along with prayers for needs like health, protection, or love. Candles are lit while voicing the desired prayer, with the rising flame symbolizing the prayer’s journey to God. This tradition comes from an amalgamation of Catholic and indigenous ancestral candle rituals.
Candles on church altars hold deep spiritual meaning in Mexican Catholicism. At least two tall candles stand on altars as symbols of Christ’s light. The altar candles are lit for any liturgical celebration and always burn when the reserved sacrament is present. In home altars, families light candles during prayer times, setting the spiritual tone. On special feast days, additional votives or tea lights are lit around the central altar candles. The abundant candlelight represents the worship community joining their prayers to God as one.
Advent candles are an important Mexican Christmas tradition. One candle is lit on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Each represents a spiritual theme for that week – hope, love, joy, and peace. Different colors are associated with the candle themes, often purple, pink, and white. As more candles burn each week, the growing light symbolizes Mexicans’ anticipation toward Jesus’ birth. On Christmas Eve, all four candles burn together as families sing hymns like “Los Peces en el Rio.”
St. Jude Candle
Green votive candles are burned while specifically praying to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. This tradition stems from the belief in St. Jude’s healing powers and intercession for desperate situations. The green color represents the spirit’s renewal and life. Mexicans light the candle while formally voicing their petitions to St. Jude. Keeping the candle burning represents keeping prayer vigil for God’s help through the beloved saint’s aid.
Day of the Dead
Candles light the way for departed souls returning on Day of the Dead. Candles burn on altars set with offerings, or line the ground in paths to loved ones’ graves. The flames’ purpose is twofold – provide directional lighting for the returning spirits, and represent the community’s prayers and remembrance. After the day’s festivities, candles are often placed on graves themselves, with the light’s continuity meant to signify enduring bonds between living and dead.
In this coming-of-age ritual for Mexican girls, candles hold symbolic meaning for the quinceañera. After Mass, she is presented with a tall candle lit from the altar representing her journey into womanhood. She may hold the candle for her first dance at the reception, or be asked to light the candles of attendants in a custom called the candle ceremony. The candle’s flame acknowledges the quince girl’s glow as she becomes a mature, responsible young woman.
Weddings & Baptisms
It is customary for a Chasse candle – a tall candle on a decorated base – to stand near the bride and groom at Mexican Catholic weddings. This represents Christ present to bless the union with his light. Parents or godparents also hold lighted candles during baptisms, which signify the infant entering the Christian community. Across these sacraments, candle flames visibly convey God’s presence and spiritual gifts like faith being transmitted.
Family & Folk Traditions
What’s a birthday cake without candles? This Mexican tradition doesn’t differ greatly from American customs. The number of candles matches the birthday person’s age. Friends and family sing “Las Mañanitas” or “Happy Birthday” while the honoree thinks of a wish, then blows out the candles in one breath. Superstition says whoever the birthday person looks at first after extinguishing the candles is their romantic interest! Beyond wishes, the glowing candles represent hopes for the upcoming year.
These handmade Christmas candles are a cherished Mexican folk custom. Candlemakers pour hot beeswax into molds, often forming nativity shapes like Mary or baby Jesus. The candles are secured upright in small paper bags filled with sand weighted with pebbles. Starting on December 12th for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, velitas line streets, homes, and churches with their golden glow as part of posadas. The velitas keep burning through Christmas Eve, guiding the pilgrims’ path just as candles light Mary and Joseph’s way.
Día de la Candelaria
On February 2nd, Mexicans commemorate the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple with Candelaria celebrations. Families bring the baby Jesus from their nativity scenes to church for a blessing by candlelight. They dress in costume and carry the Christ child nestled in a basket, candleholders, fresh flowers, and rosaries. After the priest blesses the figurines with holy water, a procession follows back home lit with candles in prayer. Later, tamales are served for Candle Mass celebrations, often with one special toy baby hidden inside.
Placing a lit candle before a photo is a treasured way for Mexicans to remember loved ones who have passed away. The candle is kept fresh and burning in a special spot on the ofrenda altar, especially around Day of the Dead. A weeping glass holder encloses the candle, with the suspended tears representing grief. Yet the glowing flame signifies the departed’s continued presence in spirit, watching over their family. When a memorial candle burns low, it is removed and replaced to keep the bonds of memory lasting.
Candlemaking Folk Arts
The famous Talavera pottery of Puebla extends to exquisite ceramic candleholders. Intricate floral patterns adorn geometric shapes and religious images shaped by hand from clay. Bright cobalt blue, yellow, green, and orange painted details create these iconic Mexican folk art talaveras. The Talavera candleholders still serve their functional purpose elegantly, whether placed on an altar, patio table, or windowsill. The glowing candle inside represents how generations of craft mastery radiate through this vibrant pottery.
La Candelaria Candles
Candles made for La Candelaria on February 2nd represent dedication to this religious feast day. Wax is hand-poured into molds carved with intricate details like Our Lady of Guadalupe, saints, biblical scenes, flowers and more. Others roll sheets of wax into tubes, press in designs, then shape candles decorated with colorful wax flowers. Local markets burst with specialty Candelaria candles leading up to Candle Mass. Lighting one signifies both honoring tradition and offering a prayer to blessed baby Jesus.
Veracruz Wax Art
In Veracruz, melting wax itself becomes a colorful form of Mexican folk art. Practiced since the 1700s, a molten candle is dripped over a metal plaque in circular patterns. As it cools and hardens, the artisan drops new wax dots to build up designs like flowers, birds, or religious images. The plaque moves around over heat to continually shape the melted wax sculpture into a unique form of encaustic painting. The finished candle artwork often decorates home altars as symbolic spiritual offerings.
For curanderos, shamans, and brujos practicing traditional witchcraft, candles hold potent ritual symbolism. Specific colored candles represent different energies, with red for passion, green for growth, black for banishing negativity. Candles anointed with oils are carved with runes and set atop herbs aligned to desired outcomes – protection, healing, divination. As the anointed candle burns, its magic is released. Snuffing out the flame signals the spell or prayer’s conclusion.
Day of the Dead Candles
Candles used for Day of the Dead feature iconic imagery, scents, and designs. Scull candles stamped from sheets of wax are a popular folk art. Others are shaped or painted with skeletons, marigolds, and nichos. Perfumed wax is infused with copal incense, floral scents, or essential oils. Burning these candles both honors the dead and craftspeople who keep Mexico’s vibrant Day of the Dead traditions thriving.
From religion to folk art, candles hold deep cultural meaning and symbolism in Mexico. They represent prayers, hopes, memories, celebration, life and death. The rituals and customs surrounding Mexican candle traditions tell a rich story of family, spirituality, community, and remembrance reaching back through generations. Whether placed on an altar, birthday cake, or holiday path, a candle’s glow touches and connects all parts of Mexican heritage.