He was wearing a white doctor’s coat, had a stethoscope draped around his tiny ceramic neck, and was carrying a personalized black medical bag. He was in good company, among a dozen or so other Niños Dioses (God Children), dressed in clothing from satin capes and regal crowns to simple robes and straw hats. At first glance they might have been cowboys or goat herders, but on further reflection they were probably just simple pilgrims on a holy journey.
All were part of the February 2 celebration in Oaxaca of Día de la Candelaria, celebrated throughout the Hispanic Catholic world, it is a deeply sentimental tradition in Mexico. Like many holidays in this fantastic country, it’s a wonderful and mind-boggling fusion of Catholicism, indigenous tradition and modern culture.
The first time I was here in February, two years ago, (thinking only of it as Groundhog Day, which it is in the U.S.), I wondered why everyone on the street was carrying a baby Jesus in their arms. Dressed up and sitting in a chair, no less. What I understood, in my poor Spanish after asking several people, was that it was a celebration of the day that Jesus first wore clothes – graduating as it were from swaddling clothes. Well, sort of.
Also known as Candlemas or the Presentation of Christ at the Temple, the religious holiday is celebrated on February 2 according to the biblical record of the day that Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus to the temple. Someone had to do the math on this – as according to Jewish law, a woman was sequestered with a new baby for 40 days following the birth – to work out that December 25 + 40 days = February 2.
Like many religious celebrations in the early days of Christianity, it was also handily camouflaged by a coinciding pagan celebration – in this case the halfway mark between the winter solstice on December 21 and the spring equinox on March 21. That’s the tenuous connection to Groundhog Day, when we in America try to figure if there will be more winter weather or spring will begin. To be fair, dressed Jesus figurines are not as much of a stretch as small furry animals making climate predictions.
Many Mexican families own a Niño Dios (God child), often a family heirloom, whom plays a prominent part in religious celebrations throughout the year. A Niño Dios isn’t just for families or individuals to display; there are many in Catholic churches around the world that are venerated and visited throughout the year.
On Christmas Eve, the family’s Ninõ Dios takes his place in the traditional nativity scene, which usually involves a hillside setting complete with a stream, animals on the hill and manger at the top. There is the requisite holy family: angels, wise men and shepherds, but often a wider range of animals than in typically portrayed in el Norte – turkeys and gorillas have been spotted in local scenes here.
On Kings’ Day January 6, celebrating the day that the three wise men reached the manger to give the newborn Jesus their gifts, the Niño Dios figure also receives presents from the magi (as do Mexican children rather than from the commercially sold-out Santa Claus). When families and friends share the wreath-shaped Rosca de Reyes (literally “coil of the kings”) bread, there is a hidden plastic baby Jesus somewhere in it. The person who finds the plastic figure then hosts the party on Día de la Candalaria, traditionally providing tamales and drinks for the whole group.
But back to Jesus and his clothes. It’s a tradition unique to Mexico to dress the God Child each year in new clothes for presentation at mass on Día de la Candelaria. Like many of the traditions that took hold after the Spanish conquest, the gentle Mexican people didn’t resist the culture of their captors but simply patch-worked it onto an already complex anthropological quilt. Somewhere along the line, it became tradition for the baby to wear not just any old clothes for the Candlemas mass, but new ones.
In some cases, the recipient of the baby Jesus in the Kings’ Day rosca bread is actually seen as a kind of godparent, with the responsibility of buying a new outfit for up to three years. The first year (or if it’s a new Niño Dios), the baby is traditionally dressed in white as a symbol of purity. Other traditional presentations include Jesus seated in a chair; with his pastoral staff or pilgrim’s basket; holding a lamb or white dove; or bearing lilies.
Of course, Jesus needing new clothes every year has given rise to all-out capitalism – which is why you can find whole market stalls dedicated to his potential wardrobe. By far, the majority of the selection leans towards the traditional: white satin with gold trim, crown and scepter. Jesus as shepherd is also acceptably traditional, in his brown sandals and simple robe, or with a pilgrim’s hat and staff.
Then there are capes leaning more towards high Elvis than heavenly host, and it rapidly goes from kingly to kitsch from there. You can buy baby Jesus a jersey in your favorite soccer team colors, put him in ethnic dress, outfit him as a mariachi, or opt for professional attire such as doctor, conservative tradition still rules here in Oaxaca.
Even this far into the southern reaches of Mexico, within the small pueblos, it’s an emerging modern world. The market ladies have cell phones and kids go off to college rather than learn their parents’ trade. Every little mountain village has an internet café, and Starbucks has serious competition from the local coffee shops. But for the most parconservative tradition still rules here in Oaxaca
At the end of the day – and especially on Sundays and religious holidays – Mexican families come together as they always did and celebrate with the fused traditions of their many mixed ancestors. Jesus might wear new and shiny threads on Día de la Candalaria, but Niño Dios is a serious figure here, worthy of dignity and respect. And come to think of it – no matter the outer wrapping – aren’t we all.
By Susan Bean Aycock