Day of the Little Candles - Dates, origin and celebrations

8 Dec 2024

Date 2024

Sunday, 8 of December

Date 2025

Monday, 8 of December

Official: Immaculate Conception
Others: Day of the Little Candles Night of the Little Candles
Spanish: Inmaculada Concepción Día de las Velitas Noche de las Velitas

The Day of the Little Candles is celebrated every year between the night of the 7th and the early morning of the 8th of December. Colombians gather with family, friends and neighbors to light candles and usher in the Christmas season.

This long-standing tradition in Colombia is celebrated in honor of the Immaculate Conception holiday, which falls on December 8th. Although it is an important event for many, there are various ways to celebrate it across different regions of the country. Beyond the creative ways to spend this day, few people know its origin and meaning. Let's review the origin of this festival and the different customs that it has generated around the country.

History and meaning

The Day of the Little Candles is celebrated in Colombia to honor the Immaculate Conception, a church doctrine that asserts the Virgin Mary remained free of sin from the moment of her conception. This concept emphasizes the exceptional qualities of the Virgin and her suitability as the mother of Jesus. It is important to note that this idea is solely related to the conception of the Virgin, and not to that of Jesus, as is sometimes mistaken.

The origin of the Immaculate Conception as a holiday dates back to the early days of Christianity. The first accounts of its celebration date from the fifth century in Syria, where it was held on December 9. In 1476 the event was included in the Roman calendar for December 8, a date that was calculated by subtracting 9 months from the Virgin's birthday. In 1708 Pope Clement XI extended its celebration to the entire Christian world as a mandatory event, which meant a significant increase in devotion to the Virgin. However, it was not until 1854 that the festival was consolidated over other religious celebrations, when Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of the Catholic Church. Although the Church already recognized that the Virgin had been pure and free of sin, the dogma ratified that her purity occurred from the moment of her conception, a fact that sought to resolve debates between Christian groups.

While all of this was happening, the tradition of venerating the Virgin Mary also spread to Colombia during the colonial period, mainly due to the efforts of the Spanish Crown and the Church. As accounts of miracles and apparitions of the Virgin in the Caribbean region spread, the devotion of the people grew. At that time, the celebration used to last several days and took place in different regions, where multiple activities took place, including religious events such as masses, prayers, and processions; but also other activities such as games of chance, comedies and bullfighting events. Similarly, in Santa Marta and various towns in Magdalena, it became customary to light candles and lanterns on the night before December 8th.

Tradition in the Day of the Little Candles

There are many traditions associated with celebrating the day and honoring the Virgin Mary. While there are various types of celebrations, most events take place on the night of December 7th. In fact, it may be more appropriate to refer to the celebration as the "Night of the Candles", due to the prominence of candlelight in the festivities.

Light candles and lanterns

The most popular way to celebrate the Day of the Candles is by lighting candles and lanterns in front of houses or other public places. Although this tradition is similar in all cities throughout the country, it typically starts at different times depending on the region. In cities like Bogotá, Cali, and Pereira, people start lighting candles when night falls on December 7th. On the other hand, in cities in the Caribbean region, such as Cartagena and Barranquilla, it is customary to begin at dawn the next day and continue the celebration until dawn the following day.

Candles used in the celebration are usually small and come in various colors, made of wax. It's common for each person to light several candles, and there's a belief that a candle should be lit for each loved one. Handmade lanterns, usually made with paper or glass, are also part of the tradition. Creating and decorating lanterns as a family activity, starting in the afternoon, is a cherished aspect of the tradition. The candles are typically placed in front of houses on platforms or in gardens, while lanterns are placed in streets, garages, gardens, or anywhere inside the house where they can be seen from the outside. In some cities like Medellín and Cali, lanterns are also placed on the banks of rivers.


It's common for multiple events with fireworks to be organized, both in the main cities and in small towns. While the fireworks displays during the Day of the Candles may not be as frequent or as spectacular as those during Christmas and New Year's, they can still be seen in different parts of the country. These displays are often organized by trade groups, private clubs, and government entities.

Día de las velitas - Bogotá
Day of the Little Candles in Bogotá. Photo: Camilo Chávez - Flickr

Religious celebrations

Masses and special ceremonies dedicated to honoring the Virgin Mary continue to hold great importance for many Catholics. Churches often perform at least one ceremony to remember the significance of the event and to offer prayers to the Virgin. These ceremonies typically include hymns and special prayers. In addition, it's common for people to pay homage to the Virgin Mary from their homes by placing white and blue flags on their windows or balconies. This act is a symbolic gesture to welcome and honor the Virgin Mary, as well as to express gratitude for her role in carrying Jesus in her womb.

Traditional music

Music is an essential component of any Colombian celebration, and the Day of the Candles is no exception. Traditional songs are played every year on the eve of the Immaculate Conception. Among the must-haves is "Las Cuatro Fiestas," composed by Alfredo Echeverría Comas. While many of the songs reference the customs of the Caribbean region, they are also heard in other cities. Other folkloric compositions associated with the December holidays and Christmas are also commonly played.

Typical food

Food is an essential part of the celebration of Las Velitas, whether it is breakfast at dawn on December 8th or dinner the day before. Although there is no single favorite dish, in the Caribbean region, chocolate with fritters is a standout for those who wake up early to light candles. In cities like Bogotá, it's common to organize barbecues or prepare large traditional dishes for dinner, such as tamales, arepas, and empanadas. Some families also prepare custard and other Christmas desserts. The important thing is that food is shared and creates an atmosphere of unity and joy.

Día de las velitas - Buñuelos
Chrismas Buñuelos (light fried pastries). Photo: Mario Carvajal - Flickr

Featured events

Hundreds of events are held in different parts of Colombia to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. For example, in Cartagena there are horseback riding, concerts and light shows, while Medellín and Cali both inaugurate their outstanding Christmas lights on this date and hold live performances. In Bogotá, the Colpatria tower lights up and shows are held in the Plaza de Bolívar. Villa de Leyva celebrates the busy festival of lights with multiple activities that extend over 2 days. In Quimbaya, Quindio, a traditional festival of candles and lanterns is also celebrated. In Salamina, Caldas, 'La Noche del Fuego' (the night of fire) takes place, featuring various activities such as colorful fireworks and lantern decorations.

Additionally, most cities are decorated by illuminating parks and public spaces. Shopping malls and some hotels also create their lighting fixtures and hold their own special activities. The main cities usually host extended trade events from December 7th until the early hours of the following day.

Other public holidays