In Mexico, the air is thick with the steam and aroma of tamales on the eve of February 2nd. But the story begins a few weeks earlier around the table with rosca de reyes, a sweet, circular, firm bread with sugar and dried fruits, representing the crown of the Magi who traveled to meet baby Jesus. The bread with a hidden plastic or porcelain figurine is a nod to the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph’s efforts to go into hiding to shield their newborn from Herod’s wrath.
The lucky finder of the figurine in their rosca de reyes slice, which everyone cuts for themselves, will be the padrino or host of the upcoming feast, which entails tamales for everyone present. Rosca de reyes sets the stage for a tradition that’s as much about a tool to teach a religious story as it is about community and pastry.
Tamales, the headliners of the Día de la Candelaria feast, or Candlemas, are a culinary odyssey in themselves. Crafted from corn masa that’s been through the transformative nixtamalization process, these bundles of joy are a testament to the depth and breadth of traditional Mexican cuisine. Usually wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, depending on the region, and steamed to perfection, each tamal is a revelation, embodying the collision of indigenous techniques, Spanish influence, and local ingredients. But to merely describe their physical preparation is to ignore the mysticism that runs through the kitchen; it’s believed that the energy you bring to the tamal-making process, whether it be through dance, prayer, or even the rhythm of music, influences the outcome, turning a simple meal into a communal rite.
Día de la Candelaria aligns with the day Jesus was presented at the temple and coincides with the first day of the Aztec calendar. Tamales were the food of choice for the feast as many pre-Hispanic gods received corn offerings, as it was believed that men were made out of corn.
The feast is more than a religious observance—it’s a collective activity taking place in kitchens and dining rooms across Mexico and beyond. Sharing tamales during Día de La Candelaria speaks to the enduring power of shared meals to bring people together across time and space. The tradition continues to weave the past into the present, inviting many generations to the table to partake in a rich, unfolding story that continues to be written.