Today is Little Candles’ Day (Día de las Velitas), a very popular holiday in Colombia. December 7 is the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a public holiday in Colombia, and the unofficial start of the Christmas season in the country, as it is in much of Latin America. On this day, people place candles and paper lanterns (with candles inside) on their windows, balconies, porches, sidewalks, streets, parks and squares – everywhere they can be seen – in honor of the Virgin Mary and her immaculate conception.
The celebration of the Day of the Candles dates to December 8, 1854, when Pope Pius IX defined as dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, published in Ineffabilis Deus. In anticipation of this decision, people lit candles and paper lanterns to show their support and belief in this idea. In Colombia, as in many places all over the world, this announcement was observed by lighting candles. The Catholic Church of Colombia kept alive the celebration and made an annual tradition of lighting candles the night of December 7. El Día de las Velitas is celebrated throughout Colombia, but traditions vary in each region and city.
In the municipality of Quimbaya, in the Department of Quindío the most important cultural event is the Candles and Lanterns Festival (Fiesta Nacional del Concurso de Alumbrados con Velas y Faroles), which began in 1982 and is held each year on the 7th and 8 December. Each of the neighborhoods in the township competes to produce the most spectacular lighting arrangements, and many visitors come from throughout Colombia to admire the displays.
In Bogotá, the Christmas decorations reach their peak on this day; the city, fully decorated, plans late activities for the whole family since most Colombians would be out and about admiring the shows, many streets close to traffic and allow pedestrians to walk freely and stop to admire the light arrangements. Malls, museums, stores, and other public places have extended hours of operation. There are many shows that take place on this night, live nativity scenes, caroling events, among others.
In the Caribbean Region of Colombia, the lighting of candles and lanterns takes place on the early hours of December 8, before sunrise, instead of the night before. Devout Catholics wake up before sunrise and light candles with their family members. Many people stay up all night and party in celebration and light the candles some time before they go to bed. Naturally, there is abundant food and drink.
In Colombia, natilla is the most popular Christmas dish and is eaten along with buñuelos and manjar blanco. It’s something like a flan or pudding usually, but can be made in a sliceable form. Basic ingredients include milk, panela (blocks of brown sugar), cinnamon, and cornstarch. Occasionally people like to add grated coconut, coconut milk, or raisins, but these are optional. To garnish it, powdered cinnamon is spread on top of the finished natilla. Store-bought, natilla is common but one of the best known Christmas traditions in Colombia is making natilla over an improvised campfire in the streets or home patios.
As with so many of my recipes, you don’t need explicit directions if you have some experience as a cook. But if you have never eaten natilla you’ll need some guidelines so that you know what you are aiming for. This kind of custard is, unfortunately, not to my taste so I can’t give too many helpful hints. I will say that it uses a lot of cornstarch for thickness which has a distinctive taste if not cooked enough. I also recommend using coconut cream for flavor even though technically it is optional. Natilla is best eaten along with something else, such as Colombian buñuelos (fried doughy cheese curd), to temper the milky sweetness – in my humble opinion.
Natilla Navideña Colombiana
½ cup cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
1 cup cream
½ cup cream of coconut (optional)
½ cup grated panela or dark brown sugar
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp butter
In a large measuring cup or small bowl, whisk the cornstarch into 1 cup of the milk. Set aside.
Put the remaining one cup of milk and the cream into a heavy saucepan. Add the cinnamon stick, a pinch of salt, the panela (or brown sugar), and the cream of coconut (optional).
Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until it almost reaches a boil. Remove from the heat , and whisk in the cornstarch mixture.
Return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens and becomes shiny, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter and the vanilla.
Divide the natilla into serving dishes, or place in one large dish. Chill until ready to serve. Sprinkle with powdered cinnamon before serving.