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The Velas of Michoacán

Of course, candles are a romantic must, but in Michoacán they are a craft, a symbol of faith, and have lighted the way of the Dead and Magi for hundreds of years.

Sold in tienditas throughout the Pátzcuaro region of Michoacán, the candles have been made in the homes of the villages surrounding Lake Pátzcuaro for as long as anyone can remember. Made by hand in the kitchens in only three sizes (to fit church altar pieces and Day of the Dead ceramic candelabras), it was not uncommon to find a touch of tierra or an errant fly in one's purchased candle.

The wicks were made of string or rope which unfortunately caused much smoke, but was not of concern in the highly vaulted ceilings of ancient churches or when used in the village cemeteries during Muertos.

Only when commercial demand increased did candle makers establish cooperative locations in which to work. This was of great relief because many houses in Michoacán are made of wood (the traditional troje), and the danger of pots of melted paraffin around small children was evident.

With this change, quality improved, the offering of sizes expanded, and craft persons had safe environments in which to work. What has not changed is the hand bathed method in which the candles are made, and the golden stamp that appears on every candle signifying the patron saint of the household of the candle maker. Although creamy in color, the candles are 98% paraffin, 2% bees wax, and have never contained any scent (only the Padre gets to burn incense in church!).

Rather than dipping the candles, the wicks (only US made wicks are used in ZOCALO candles thus greatly diminishing smoke) are bathed layer after layer until the desired size is achieved. At this point the unfinished candle looks more like a wax cone than a column or taper. Once dried, the candles are trimmed to the desired length.
The bottom of every candle has the appearance of the rings of a tree trunk evidencing the hundreds of layers needed to form the finished vela. This time consuming process is an inexact art rendering slight variations in sizes as is true with any hand made item.
A traditional grave on Noche de los Muertos is adorned with
candles which have aluminum foil hurricanes placed around
the flames ensuring they will continuously burn for the entire night.

The most fantastic use and display of the candles is on the night of Muertos, November 1, in the villages surrounding Lake Pátzcuaro. The night is aglow in the cemeteries of Tzintzuntzan, Ihuatzio, Cucuchucho and Tzurumutaro as hundreds of thousands of burning candles guide the souls of the dead back to earth to rejoin their families in spirit.

Yes, there is indeed a type of magic in these candles that is felt as you hold one in your hand, and certainly as you light one in the dark. The beautiful velas of Michoacán are guaranteed to bring good spirits into your casa!

January 6, 2003
By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO