I have been meaning to recount my festive experience one cold and windy January evening at Gisselle’s Bakery. Earlier that day I was visiting the bakery to deliver news and information about an upcoming neighborhood event in Middle Main when I saw the small flyer affixed to the back of the cash register announcing a raffle (rifa) for a big rosca de reyes (spiral of kings- sweet bread with figurines hidden inside), hot chocolate, and a gallon of milk. Before I understood the cultural and religious significance of this bread I gathered it was very popular and Gisselle’s was the place to get it. As you can see in the photo, there were plenty of them ready to be sold and in a variety of sizes to suit each family’s needs. In the arc of 5 minutes at least 5 people entered and happily purchased their Rosca . I wanted to buy one but I wanted to have a reason to besides it looks cool and is clearly a hot commodity this time of the year. So, I jumped at the chance to pay $1 for a raffle ticket for the chance to get my own round, decorated, mysterious bread like cake. Luckily, they were pulling the winning ticket around 6:30 that evening so I had some time to figure out what it was exactly I stood to win.
Fast forward 5 hours: My friend from college is visiting me from California and willfully agrees to tag along to Gisselle’s. When we arrive Gisselle’s brother Jamie explains to us that they’ll postpone calling the winner until around 7:30 to accommodate the many workers whose shifts extend well past 5. He also told me that at busy times of the year, really holidays or special events that include a signature baked good, the bakery operation becomes a family affair; they all work hard to keep up, but wear smiles and the same classic gray “Gisselle’s Bakery” sweater. With time to kill and empty stomachs we head towards the closest eatery to be outside the least possible. Pancho Villa it is, where we enjoy very tasty sampling of traditional Mexican foods by the terrific owner and Middle Main-iac, Ariel. We leave satisfied but cold and upon returning to Gisselle’s are instantly elated by the warm, sweet-smelling air inside Gisselle’s.
We stroll down the aisles, browsing specialty food items, Mexican drink mixes, and much more. We watch all the families, parents, single adults- all coming in to pick up their Roscas.
While we wait and observe the busy scene, we can tell the friends and family Jamie had mentioned earlier were beginning to arrive and gather in the side room. At some point we were kindly offered a seat and even a Model Especial (a Mexican beer). I think the moment we had been waiting for, the drawing of the raffle winner, happened while we were sitting and chatting, however I’m not sure because it was so quick. Anyhow, I didn’t win but the father of little girl did and made her very happy. My thoughts had already shifted from the raffle to whatever was about to occur in the bakery once the constant flow of customers came to a halt.
The festivities commenced as everyone took a seat at a long folding table and Gisselle brought out what could have easily been the largest Rosca de Reyes baked in Poughkeepsie this year.
There was a toast to health and happiness with Tequilla, fresh juice or beer, and then everybody made their way to slice a piece of the Rosca, well aware of the long standing Mexican tradition that whoever cuts a slice containing one of the baby Jesus figurines is expected to prepare tamales
at the next celebration on February 2, Dia de la Candelaria (Day of the Candlemas). I heard someone say there were at least 5 figurines inside and by the time I got to cut my 2nd slice of bread only two others before me had been fortunate recipients (or unfortunate, depending on if you have plans for 2 Feb), so I figured if I cut a big enough slice the chances were good of striking plastic and being invited (required) to come back next month and make tamales (once I am actually taught how to!) Well, lo and behold, I got lucky and therefore need to present myself ready to make tamales this Sunday, Feb 2 for Day of the Candle Mass. I promised a girl whose name I don’t remember that would return to fulfill my duties (happily). I’d really like to keep my promise- I haven’t been in or talked with anyone about this since- so I hope the offer, rather the obligation, still stands.
For all who, like I, have never heard of this celebration tomorrow, continue reading for some of what lies behind the Mexican tradition of this Christian holiday:
The modern festival in Mexico and Mexican immigrant communities is a blend of Christian influences and native Mexican tradition. It is a traditional Christian festival that commemorates the ritual purification of Mary 40 days after giving birth to her son Jesus. On this day, Christians remember the presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple, keeping with the Jewish custom of taking the newborn Jewish boy to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented to God by his grateful parents. So Jesus would have been taken to the temple on 2 February. This explains why Catholics celebrate it as the "Feast of Purification" or as the "Presentation of Christ at the Temple."
However, in pre-Christian times, it was known as the ‘Feast of Lights’ and celebrated the power of the sun to give life as winter turned into spring.
February also 2nd marks the mid-way point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. This may be a remnant of an old Pagan Tradition, since Feb. 2 has long been thought to be an indicator of the weather to come, very similar to the significance of Groundhog Day here in the states. Another important custom in Mexico, particularly in areas where traditions run strong, is for families to hold an image of the Christ child, a niño Dios. Sometimes a godparent is chosen for the niño Dios, who is then responsible for hosting various celebrations between Christmas and Candlemas. First, on Christmas eve the niño Dios is placed in the Nativity scene, on January 6th, King's Day, the child is brought presents from the Magi, and on February 2nd, the child is dressed in fine clothes and presented in the church.
The choice of food is, of course, the simple and delicious, tamales. Mexican tamales (tamal is the Mexican "singular" use of the word) are packets of corn dough with a Beef, Chicken or Bean filling usually wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. The packets are steamed and eaten. Contrary to what is found in most American-Mexican restaurants, most tamales are not served with a sauce, but rather simple and plain. I’m not sure if there was any sauce on the tamales I enjoyed last month, but they were very good.
We know that Tamales date back to at least pre-Colombian Mexico and possibly even further. Still today, the corn dough is field corn processed with wood ashes in the same manner as it was 700 years ago This processing softens the corn for easier grinding and also aids in digestibility and increases the nutrients absorbed by the human body.