On the night of December 7, Colombia’s windows, balconies, and sidewalks come alive in one of the country’s neatest traditions.
It is the Noche de las Velitas, literally the Night of the Little Candles or Little Candles Night in English, sometimes also called the Día de las Velitas, which translates to Day of the Little Candles or Little Candles Day.
I always thought this tradition was fascinating during my 11 years living in Colombia. My wife Susana was always sure to light her candles, and she has lots of good memories doing it as a kid. I always thought it was funny to see all the candle wax scattered around on the sidewalks the next day, clear evidence this is a quite popular tradition.
Colombia’s Day of the Little Candles tradition is connected to the Catholic holy day celebrating the Immaculate Conception, which is on December 8, the day after the little candles day in Colombia.
December 8 is always a holiday no matter what day of the week it falls, which makes it even more fun to celebrate Little Candles Day in Colombia.
So, the night of December 7, Colombians all around the country light candles in honor of the Virgin Mary. It is one of the neatest Colombia Christmas traditions.
Many people also consider it the unofficial kickoff of the Christmas season, and the Day of the Little Candles is often when cities and towns debut their Christmas lights and decorations.
Read on to learn more about the Day of the Little Candles, the history behind it, and how the Little Candles Day of Colombia is celebrated.
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Why is December 8 a Holiday in Colombia?
December 8 is always a public holiday in Colombia.
Unlike many other Colombian holidays, or festivos in Spanish, including most Catholic feast days, it is always a holiday on the actual day of December 8 and not the following Monday.
The holiday celebrates the official adoption of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
I have to be honest, as a non-Catholic, I guess I always just associated the idea of the Immaculate Conception had to do with the conception of Jesus Christ.
While, that is of course true also, when I researched the history behind the Dia de la Velitas, I found out that the feast day of the Immaculate Conception actually has to do with the idea that the Virgin Mary was also a product of Immaculate Conception.
In effect, this dogma of the Roman Catholic Church holds that the Virgin Mary was completely free from original sin.
For the fellow non-Catholics or not very religious like me, the idea of original sin holds that all humanity shares in the sin of Adam and Eve and have impulses towards evil.
In particular, the sin of sexual lust is closely associated with the idea of original sin.
During medieval times, a debate arose among Catholic scholars over whether or not Mary was free of original sin.
Catholic thinkers pretty much universally agreed that Mary was free from personal sin, a doctrine established by the Council of Trent in the 1500s, but there was debate whether or not she carried the legacy of Adam and Eve’s fall or not.
Proponents of the idea that she was free from original sin promoted the idea of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that Mary was herself not conceived through sexual intercourse between her mother Anne and father Joachim, who were believed to be infertile, but through an act of God.
Through this act, God also gave Mary his grace and ensured she was free from the original sin passed down by Adam.
In this sense, she should be seen as a figure of innocence like Eve before eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.
Some Catholics, and practically all Protestants, considered a celebration of Mary’s birth to be one celebrating sin if she was conceived by normal means.
So, by the 16th century, the belief that Mary’s conception was free form sin had become popularly accepted by many Catholics, although debate still continued among scholars and church officials.
In 1849, seeking to settle the debate, Pope Pius IX published an encyclical polling bishops on the issue, and the overwhelming majority agreed that Mary’s conception was indeed immaculate.
Therefor, the idea that Mary was a born from Immaculate Conception was made official Roman Catholic dogma by a Papal Bull known as the Ineffabilis Deus by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854.
Some Orthodox Catholic Churches, like the Ethiopian Church also accept it, while others do not.
Therefore, December 8th is celebrated around the world, with Colombia being no exception.
Why Do People Celebrate with Day of the Little Candles?
In anticipation of the declaration by Pius of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, Catholics around the world lit candles.
That means the first Day of the Little Candles was a worldwide event, not just a Colombian tradition.
However, the Colombian Catholic Church continued to promote it in subsequent years. Over time, they effectively made the celebration of Little Candles Day an annual tradition in Colombia.
On the Noche de las Velitas, people around Colombia light colorful candles and place them on sidewalks, balconies, and windowsills in honor of the Virgin Mary.
What to Expect on Little Candles Day?
Different cities have slightly different traditions and ways of celebrating the night of the little candles.
Some tend to light the candles earlier in the evening on December 7, others only after midnight. Susana for example, says you should light them exactly at or just after midnight.
Regardless of when people light the candles, it is one of the top Colombia holiday traditions, and is celebrated all around the country.
Just about anywhere you are in Colombia on the Day of the Candles on December 7, you will see lots candles lit during Night of the Candles in Colombia.
People often buy new clothes to debut during the celebration of Little Candles Night, and it’s more or less considered the unofficial kickoff of the Christmas season.
While family celebrations are common, it is also a popular night for people to go out dancing and partying with friends, at least in Cartagena, and people will often debut or estrenar their new December digs and outfits on Little Candle Day in Colombia.
It’s not uncommon for people to be up partying late into the night after the Day of the Little Candles. The next day is a holiday after all!
The next day, it is common for people to hang white flags in honor of the Virgin Mary as well.
In Cartagena, most people will wait until after midnight to light their candles as their celebrations are winding down.
Lots of candles are lit along the sidewalks as well.
In fact, you’ll likely see the wax for a couple days or even weeks after the Day of the Little Candles inside the Walled City and in most of the city’s barrios.
Since the Little Candles Day in Colombia is usually considered the start of Christmas celebrations, Cartagena’s Christmas lights are usually inaugurated on the Night of the Little Candles.
Sometimes they get lit the or the weekend before the Day of the Little Candles, depending on just what day of the week December 7 falls.
This is quite common in other cities and towns around Colombia as well.
Colombia’s Day of the Candles Tradition Conclusion
Rather you call it the Immaculate Conception, the Dia de las Velitas, the Noche de las Velitas, the Day of the Little Candles, Night of the Little Candles, this really is a neat Colombia holiday tradition.
Lots of people remember it as a fun and cherished childhood tradition and keep it alive today. I’m sure Susana will always continue to make sure to light her candles and teach it to our daughter one day.
If the day after Little Candles Day falls on a workday, it is also a nice midweek holiday and day off.
While religious in origin, it is celebrated by the devout and not so devout as well.
So if you live here or happen to be in Cartagena on the night of December 7, it’s a great night to go out on the town, and see the candles later in the night.
On the day and days leading up to the Day of the Little Candles in Colombia, you can also pick up candles from street vendors and in most little tiendas around town if you want to light a few of your own! It’s an easy way to participate in a fun Colombian tradition.
There you have it, a short history of the Little Candles Day in Colombia and some tips for what to expect during the Little Candles Night tradition.
I hope you enjoyed it and that you maybe enjoy lighting some candles of your own too!
Cheers and Happy Exploring!
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While Cartagena’s historic walls and plazas look really neat lit up with Christmas lights, visiting some of Colombia’s charming small towns can be a neat way to see traditions like this in full force. Villa de Leyva, Barichara, and Salento would be my picks for small towns to see this kind of tradition. Also, the very neat and off the beaten path Sanctuary of Las Lajas is gorgeous lit up during Christmas time!
Planning a trip to Cartagena?
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In particular, you might want to check out my guide to the best areas to stay, my list of over 75 things to do, my picks for the best Cartagena tours, the best day trips from Cartagena, my suggested packing list, my guide to the Rosario Islands, and my guide to all the beaches of Cartagena.