Candles and Perfume – who can think of them without thinking of romance?
Now, imagine a sultry night. Let us say it is a night in, perhaps, late March of 1945, the first night of Carnaval for that year.
The Visual Feast
Imagine hundreds of women of all ages, lovely in their pollera dresses, the skirts spread like wings as they dance in parade gracefully through the town. They are a feast for the eyes.
The ladies are not alone in dressing for this occasion. The men are wearing special white lawn pollera shirts, dark pants and their striped straw hats. Many of the men are playing instruments and marching with the women.
Now imagine the drums and the singing and the trumpets, the saxophones to which they dance and sing. Hear in your mind the chush-chush sound of the chucho-chucho as you watch the women move past you.
The Scent of the Night
Take a deep breath. The evening air is filled with perfumes, each flower of womanhood sweeter than the last.
Now remember that it is 1945 and this is the interior of Panama. Electric street lights have perhaps only recently been installed and are perhaps not present on all the streets the ladies must travel. So instead of harsh electric lights, the festivities are lit by candles. Thousands of them. The carts pulling the queens and other floats have candles all along the edges. And many of the ladies hold mozos de velas (bundles of candles), ingenious devices comprised of approximately two foot poles mounted with candles bound to it with narrow, silk ribbons, held torch-like at shoulder height or above.
These mozos de velas have the obvious practical application, especially on rutted, potholed streets, but there is more to the tradition. Each mozo is assembled by a throbbing heart for the girl of his dreams. How many candles – from seven to an entire box – and how many colors of candles the mozo flaunts depend on both the swain’s finances and how deeply he feels for her.
A deeply enamored lover would walk and dance beside his lady, holding the blazing mozo de velas high to symbolize his love, light her beauty and protect her.
THAT is romantic.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
We are indebted for this information to two people: Brunilda A. López Broce who, in 1999, published a lovely book of poems and short articles about Carnaval customs called “Muestrario Folklorico.” Unfortunately, this book is extremely difficult to find nowadays. So we are equally indebted to Maestro José Orestes Moreno Cano, a Las Tablas teacher and local folklore expert, who graciously loaned us the book and also provided much additional information about Carnaval history and customs. As Carnaval approaches, we are preparing an article about its origins and some of the traditions and the reasons for them. Look for it Wednesday of next week.