Baby Jesus dresses up

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Niño Dios as an angel

The holiday season in Mexico is known as Lupe-Reyes, referring to a nearly month-long period that begins on the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, on December 12 and Three King’s Day (Epiphany) on January 6.

But there is one other date related to the time period, February 2. This is called Candlemas in English, although its observance has waned in the Anglo world. It commemorates the taking of the infant Jesus to temple 40 days after his birth, a Jewish practice at the time.

Images of the infant Jesus are very important in Mexican Catholicism. It is lain in the nativity scene on 25 December, and very can often be much bigger than all the other figures. It can be on family altars throughout the year and there are even a number of famous “Niño Dios” (literally Child God) images which have numerous miracles attributed to them.

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Float with images of the Child Jesus in various outfits in a procession in July in Colonia Doctores, Mexico City
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The “Niñopa” image in procession in Xochimilco, Mexico City

Candlemas (Día de Candelaría in Spanish) centers on taking these family infant Jesus images to churches to be blessed, mimicing the ancient rite. While it may be the same physical image making the trip each year, the event is like a coming out party. And not just any old garb will do!

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Mazahua women embroidering a garment for a Niño Dios in San Felipe Santiago, State of Mexico

Tradition requires that the image have a completely new outfit each year, and while these can be simple, they can be as creative and elaborate as family budgets will allow, especially in Mexico City and the surrounding region. Many of outfits here have themes, such as dresses worn by infants to be christened, costume to depict the Holy Child of Antocha (a popular image of the Christ Child in Latin America), outfits depicting saints, popes, angels, various Mexican indigenous groups and even Aztec warriors.

In the old days, Christ child images were hand carved and passed down as family or community heirlooms. The Niñopa image so special to Xochimilco (Mexico City) dates back to the very early colonial period. Most images bought today are produced by family workshops, with most made of plasters formed by molds.

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The new outfits may be made by a family member for their specific image, but most often they are bought in local markets in January. Most are made by small workshops or families, often as a seasonal occupation. Most are sewn, but outfits resembling those to keep babies warm are also knitted.  The majority of thes outfits are sold in temporary street markets called “tianguis.”  In Mexico City, the best known market of this kind is between the Zocalo (main plaza) and the La Merced market, on Manzanares Street (near Jesus Maria), which the city has named a “Religous Cultural Corredor.” Most stands sell outfits, offerings and other supplies but more than a few are also stands dedicated to repair of the images, from a minor paint chip to restoring one broken into pieces. Although not in a typical tourist area, it is not far off and definitely worth a visit if you are in the city during the season.

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Various images from the market.

All images by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter

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