By David Agren
Catholic News Service
MEXICO CITY (CNS) — From a series of stores on a single street in central Mexico City, Saul Uribe sells everything to do with "Nino Dios," as Baby Jesus is known in this heavily Catholic country.
He has a knack for knowing what people will want when dressing their Nino Dios statues, which can be attired in white dresses, saint costumes or soccer shirts.
What’s popular this year, Uribe said, is "the age of angels," as he opened his showroom in a former convent. The room was full of Nino Dios statues with wings — except for two humble looking figurines dressed as St. Juan Diego in simple campesino clothing.
"Simplicity," he said, "is out of style."
Nino Dios is big business in Mexico as street vendors and stores sell everything from clothing to tiny thrones for the statues. Repair shops, meanwhile, fix everything from snapped-off fingers to worn eyelashes.
It’s a deep devotion, too, dating to early evangelization efforts in the Americas. Mexicans place their Nino Dios statues in home Nativity scenes on Christmas Eve, then pray the rosary in celebrating the birth of Christ. They dress up the statue to take to church for Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation, Feb. 2.
"Since the times of early evangelization in Mexico, there’s been a great devotion to the Nino Dios," says Father Hugo Valdemar Romero, spokesman for the Mexico City Archdiocese.
The custom is an example of the "popular piety" so commonplace in Mexico, where many people are prone to expressing their religiosity publicly and celebrating special saints, but keeping their distance from priests, parishes and the sacramental part of church life.
Angel outfits are popular this year, but so are Mexican soccer shirts and costumes of saints such as St. Jude Thaddeus — a fast-growing devotion, especially among the downtrodden. Vendors in Mexico City said priests are not fond of the soccer shirts on the statues of Baby Jesus.
Father Valdemar expressed mixed views, saying it could be interpreted as "pagan," but also seen as something sincere.
"We have been warning people to be careful," he said, adding that some in the city have tried dressing their statues like the folkloric Santa Muerte (St. Death), a figure the church considers incompatible with Catholic beliefs.
Priests see no decline in the devotion or a turning away from the Nino Dios tradition — especially among the working class — though people’s understanding of it seems limited.
"Pretty much everyone has one, or two or three or four" statues, said Father Robert Coogan, an American priest serving in Saltillo, in northern Mexico.
"There are also people not well-evangelized," Father Coogan said. "I’ll see people be shocked when I say, ‘There’s not a Nino Dios in heaven.’ Jesus is the crucified Lord who rose again and is seated at the right hand of the Father."
Vendors on Calle Talavera in Mexico City, where several blocks are dedicated to stores and stands selling Nino Dios articles, said business is brisk, but that people tend to buy the statues as gifts for others. The person giving the Nino Dios becomes a "godparent."
The clothing on the statue presented is symbolic as well, at least during the first four years. In the first year, the statue is dressed in white. The second year it’s dressed for a baptism and in third year for a first Communion.
In the fourth year, "You dress it as you want," said Claudia Gonzalez, a shop employee on Calle Talavera, where an estimated 1,500 businesses will operate in January.
Gonzalez dressed her Nino Dios as the "Nino Doctor," mainly because her mother was sick and she was asking for intervention. Uribe’s daughter, Sharon, did the same when she was pregnant. Gonzalez said people will dress the statues in colors representing what they are asking of God: red for love, beige for luck or blue for prosperity.
It’s a long way from 1975, when Uribe started selling Nino Dios clothes as a street vendor. At the time people made Nino Dios clothing at home or obtained garments sewed by nuns, he said. All of the garments were white, but he found out, "People didn’t want white any longer," and he began providing new options.
Like the priests, Uribe sees the devotion staying strong and has started exporting Nino Dios merchandise to other Mexican states and to the United States.
"It’s dropped a little due to the growth of non-Catholic sects" in Mexico, he says of the tradition. "But the population has grown as well."
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