Family & Friends

December Renewal:The Day of the Little Candles

December is a disconnected time for me. I’ve spent five of the last ten holiday seasons abroad, away from my family. Add to that my nonreligious worldview, and I often find myself feeling like a kid standing on the street with my face pressed up against the plate glace of a sparkly department store window display. It’s not that I want the fake snow and polar bears, exactly, it’s just that they’re so damn shiny!

It crossed my mind when we decided to make the move to Colombia—a country where 79 percent of the population self-identifies as Catholic and 13 percent as Protestant—that I might feel even more isolated than normal when Christmas rolled around. And, I have found, there’s a lot more obvious religion in Christmas here in Colombia than there is in the United States: more nativity scenes, fewer Santas. More prayer, less caroling. I feel comfortable singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” not so much  “Ave Maria.”

At the beginning of our first December in Colombia, lights started to appear around Bogotá along with the trailing clothing sales and mall decorations. I hunkered down, readying myself to avoid the whole mess. And then a Colombian friend texted me and asked if I’d heard of Dia de las Velitas—Day of the Little Candles.

She described how she and her daughter light candles on the night of December 7 each year, each flame representing a hope for the year to come. That, I thought, is a holiday tradition I can get on board with!

This December is our third in Colombia, and Dia de las Velitas has become one of my favorite days of the year. My partner and I have lit candles in the largest park in Bogotá, surrounded by hundreds of other families, lovers, and friends. We’ve lit candles in our own neighborhood, which is quieter but more intense, somehow: each child on the stairs of their own apartment building, lighting a row of candles that burn more brightly because they are the only flames on that particular stoop. And this year, we walked the streets of the city admiring the decorations before settling into the grass to light our candles again.

Maybe it’s because light can symbolize so many things to so many diverse people. Or maybe it’s because people come together under the stars. . .

Dia de las Velitas is known by most English-speaking Catholic people as Eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and it—and the following day—are celebrations of the immaculate conception of Mary. Many Colombians attend church services on these days. Many prayers are said. But when it comes to the lighting of the candles, the celebration seems to expand beyond those boundaries.


boy-selling-velitasA boy and his sister sell candles in Parque Virrey in Bogotá. (Photo: Alice Pettway)


Maybe it’s because light can symbolize so many things to so many diverse people. Or maybe it’s because people come together under the stars instead of in a building designated for followers of one faith only. No one has ever asked me if I’m Catholic, or even if I’m religious, as I light my candles. They’ve smiled. Offered a lit candle to kindle the flame on mine.

At the end of the year, we’re all looking for renewal. Some of us find it in prayer. Some in friendship. Some in nature. Sitting in the park with my partner and people I’ve never met, watching the light shift across all our faces, it seems possible that it doesn’t matter how we each find our way to the end of the year, so long as we can all come together for a candlelit moment.


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