Capturing the Divine

In old-town Quito, the large organic shapes of brightly colored candles stand in sharp contrast to the crisp white walls of the recently restored La Ronda Street. These multihued religious candles that resemble bouquets are known as cirios. They will certainly draw you into the shop where they are sold. Perhaps candles are alluring due to the warmth and light they produce. Could this be because they are the carriers of fire, which has universally captivated the human spirit?

The discovery of fire was paramount to human development: it helped us cook but, most of all, overcome the limitations of darkness and cold. Now the fear of the unknown produced by darkness could be vanished at man’s will. For this reason, light has been associated with divine goodness and, in contrast, darkness has been equated to fear and evil. In popular culture, candles have inherited this important symbolism because they produce light and fire and represent this direct connection to the divine.

In Ecuador, this universal symbol is no exception. The presence of light and fire takes many forms in most Ecuadorian festivities, for example: blasting fireworks, bond fires or glowing candles.

The Sun’s Power

Could this be associated with the Sun worship from pre-Hispanic times? Folklore expert Carvalho-Neto sees this connection. He describes an Incan holiday, celebrated on March 21 (the equinox), called muzhuc-nina or “new fire”. It consisted of three days of fasting in which no one dared to light fire. On the third day, the Inca would stand amidst his people and extend his right arm with veneration towards Inti, the Sun God. Everyone waited in suspense: if the sun was shining, a mirror on the Incan emperor’s bracelet captured the light rays. To the joy of the people, fire was produced and a piece of cotton was lit triumphantly. However, if the day was cloudy, this was an evil omen and sticks had to be rubbed to produce fire. In either case, the flame was held sacred and the Virgins of the Sun had to guard this flame until the following year’s ceremony.
During the Spanish conquest, it is possible that this representation was transferred to Catholic candles and to fire in general.

A Symbol of Resurrection

Candles have been an important part of Catholicism since at least the XIV century. In Italy, a ceremony dating from 1377, in which great and elaborate candles are offered, still exists today. In Mexico, many convents make special candles for Holy Week. In Quito, in the Convent of La Concepción, the sisters still create beeswax candles for the same festivity. A nun explains that candles are an essential part of the Holy Week, and of almost all Catholic festivities, because they represent the Light of the Resurrection of Christ.
Yet candles have not been limited to convents. Due to this strong symbolism, many followers wanted to light their own candle during sacred times. As a result, candles made their presence felt during everyday life: from birth to death. In Colonial Quito, cirios burned during baptisms, they were held in children’s hands during first communions, and so on. Important people carefully ordered in their wills the desire to have beautiful ciriosburning during their funerals; for this, they paid large openhandedly in anticipation.

Cirios have also been present during many religious processions, which still occur in a wide range of Ecuadorian cities, throughout the entire year. Though processions are less elaborate since their prohibition in 1912, in Quito, they could not be fully eradicated. One example is the“Virgen del Tránsito” procession in August, in El Tejar neighborhood, in which altars made of cirios, ribbons and flowers decorate the balconies while the Virgin is transported on the streets.

Today, Ambato and Quito are the most famous candle-making centers in Ecuador. In Quito, close to Santo Domingo’s Church, artisans have been passing the skill of candle-making from generation to generation since 1893. “People buy our candles for baptisms, first communions, and especially right before Holy Week.”

At La Ronda Street, an artisan from Ambato and his assistant gladly explain the candle making process to passers-by: “We do everything manually, just like we have been doing for over thirty years!” they affirm. The first step is to slowly pour the paraffin, at a very low temperature, onto the candlewicks which are turned on a wheel. Later, the bouquet-like shapes of the cirios are achieved as the wax is poured into a mold. At this point, it is essential to dry the candle thoroughly, so that it will become durable. Durability is particularly important for thecirio pascual because it will be lit and placed in a church for Easter and must last the entire year. Could this possibly be a reminiscence of the muzhuc-nina?

Candles are perceived as direct ‘channels’ of connection to God. One candle maker explains: “You light a candle in the church so God can hear your prayer. I always tell my customers that if they light a candle with true faith, God will listen.”

Yet, artisans fret because light bulbs are replacing candles in some churches. They fear that somehow this will ‘interfere’ with the divine connection: “God says to make an offering with a candle, not with a light bulb! People’s faith will be affected by light bulbs!”

“No Candles Please”

Candle offerings seem to have other enemies besides light bulb enthusiasts. At San Francisco’s Church, a grayish hue tints a side altar’s walls and ceiling. This is due to the smoke of candle offerings that have been burned here for centuries. An old lady devoutly prays as she lights her candle directly underneath a sign which reads, “No candles please. Shrine under restoration.” But restoration artists are fighting a lost battle: how can this woman wait for months until the image is fixed to send her urgent prayers to God? Evidently, others have ‘bent the rules’ too, as dozens of candles lie on the ground next to the altar. “If they can’t be burned, at least they can be tossed on the floor of the shrine as an offering to God,” they seem to say.

The concept of lighting a candle has spilled over into slang. It’s common to hear someone say, when going through a challenging moment: “Please light a candle for me.” At a more symbolic level, this means: “I hope God listens to your prayer for me.”

Bibliography: (March 8, 2007).·cirio (March 10, 2007).
Neto-Carvalho, Pablo. (2001) Citing Cevallos. Diccionario del Folklore Ecuatoriano. Quito:CCE.
Neto- Carvalho, Pablo. (1967) Geografía del Folklore Ecuatoriano. Quito: CCE.

Personal Interviews: March 2007.

  • Ximena Carcelén
  • Susan Webster
  • Claudio Malo