Colombia’s Day of the Little Candles looks an awful lot like Hanukkah

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA – DECEMBER 07 : People place lit candles on a wall of Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception during the Dia de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles) celebrations in Bogota, Colombia on December 07, 2018. Colombians took to the streets to light candles and lanterns on a traditional night of vigil prior to the observance of the Immaculate Conception that marks the beginning of Christmas celebrations in the country. (Photo by Lokman Ilhan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

(JTA) — Jews in Colombia preparing for Hanukkah saw something earlier this month that no doubt looked very familiar.

On the night of Dec. 7, streets, plazas, windows and porches across the country were lit by thousands of candles in honor of Dia de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles), a cherished holiday in the Latin American country that officially marks the beginning of the Christmas season.

The holiday dates back to 1854, when Pope Pius defined the immaculate conception to be Catholic dogma, an announcement celebrated by believers around the world with the lighting of candles. But in Colombia, where the holiday is a major celebration, local tradition has it that Dia de las Velitas is influenced by the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which falls around the same time of year and is also celebrated by the lighting of candles.

Alberto Antonio Beron Ospina, a professor specializing in Latin American history at the Technological University of Pereira, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the mountainous Antioquia region of Colombia offered refuge to Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition. Known as crypto-Jews, these escapees converted to Christianity publicly but continued to practice Judaism in secret.

Their influence, Ospina said, is evident in the regional dialect, which shows signs of Ladino pronunciations, and in local architecture, which features Hebrew letters and Jewish symbols like the Star of David. In the popular Colombian imagination, Antiochians are entrepreneurial and business-minded and have been called “the Jews of Colombia,” Ospina said.

“These descendants of the Jews most probably celebrated Hanukkah without knowing what it was in the privacy of their homes,” he said. “In 1854, Pope Pius marked the 8th of December as the day of Immaculate Conception. But what is particular about Colombia is that the festival starts the night before. This was probably an unconscious way for the church to encrypt and institutionalize Jewish practices in the region.”

Jewish scholars aren’t so convinced.

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