Jesus was wearing a white doctor’s coat with his name over the pocket, stethoscope draped around his tiny ceramic neck, carrying his own little black medical bag.
He was in good company, among a dozen or so other niños Dioses (literally God children), dressed in clothing from satin capes and regal crowns to simple robes and straw hats. They might have been cowboys or goatherders, but really, they were just pilgrims.
All were part of the February 2 celebration of Día de la Candelaria, celebrated throughout the Hispanic world but especially beloved in Mexico. Like many holidays here, it’s a wonderful, mind-boggling fusion of Catholicism, indigenous tradition and weird modern culture.
The first time I was here on February 2, (thinking only of it as Groundhog Day, which it is in the U.S.), I wondered why everyone seemed to be carrying a baby Jesus. OK, scary baby Jesus with a piercing-blue-eyed stare and a pained expression for the most part. Dressed up and sitting in a chair, no less.
I asked around and what I understood, in my then pretty basic Spanish, was that it was a celebration of the day that Jesus first wore real clothes instead of swaddling cloths. Well, pretty much. Turns out it’s a celebration of the biblically recorded day that Mary and Joseph brought baby J to the temple. Someone had to do the math on this –according to Jewish law, a woman was house-bound with a new baby for 40 days following birth – to work out that December 25 + 40 days = Feb. 2.
Like many early Christian celebrations, it was also handily camouflaged by a coinciding pagan celebration – in this case the halfway mark between the winter solstice December 21 and the spring equinox March 21. That’s the tenuous connection to Groundhog Day, when we first-worlders try to work out if winter will end or go on for six weeks. To be fair, dressed Jesus figurines are no weirder than small furry animals making climate predictions.
Many Mexican families own a niño Dios, often a family heirloom. On Christmas eve, he takes his place in the traditional nativity scene, usually an elaborate diorama complete with stream, animals and manger. There are 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.
But back to Jesus and his clothes. It’s a tradition to dress the God child each year in new clothes for presentation at mass on Día de la Candelaria. The first year (or if it’s a new niño Dios), the baby is usually dressed in white as a symbol of purity.
Of course, Jesus needing new clothes every year has given rise to all-out capitalism –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 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 the little guy a jersey in your favorite team colors, outfit him as a mariachi, or opt for professional attire such as doctor (although legitimately there was biblical reference to Jesus as the Great Physician). A great hue and cry arose a few years ago when a niño Diós showed up tricked out as a drug dealer. Too far is too far.
Even this far into the southern reaches of Mexico, it’s an emerging modern world: the market ladies have cell phones and nearly every mountain village has an internet café. But for the most part, conservative tradition still rules here in Oaxaca. Jesus might wear new threads on Día de la Candalaria, but he’s a figure worthy of dignity and respect.
Dr. Jesus, Elvis or a holy mariachi? Like Oaxaca itself, it’s a totally mixed bag.