Candelaria: When 1,000 Dressed-up Dolls Come to Mexican Mass
Story and photos by Lydia Carey

It can take years of being in Mexico to begin to understand the layers of tradition, mixed theology, and hidden meanings. But what's up with those elaborately dressed-up Baby Jesus dolls?

Candelaria holiday in Mexico

When I walked into the mass and saw twenty mariachis in the middle of the crush of parishoners I chuckled to myself, wondering what I had been thinking. I know Mexico well at this point. Not so well that cultural quirks like Candelaria don't still draw me in, but well enough to know that no Mexican holiday is ever complete without music, dancing and of course, fireworks. Sure enough, there were workers setting up the firework tower outside and a fair-like atmosphere in the street.

Baby Jesus outfitsI was drawn to Candelaria, or in English, Candlemass, by way of the Merced neighborhood, a crisscross of working class streets deep in Mexico City's Centro Historico that, despite warnings from Middle class Mexican friends, had become my favorite city haunt.

The Merced neighborhood has this particular clash of gorgeous neoclassical building that ooze with the thousands of street stands and shops that sell any item you could ever possibly want. Wandering vendors offer ice cream and cleaning rags, women delicately inspect dried chiles and fake eyelashes, and a sea of people milling about seem to move in a single coordinated wave. Ancient history and the latest electronics, the smallest church in the city and one of its red light districts. It is, all told, a fascinating place.

If you're there often enough, you will one day find yourself on Talavera street and if the shops selling Baby Jesus dolls don't catch your eye in the off season you will be unable to miss the chaos from Christmas to February 2nd. Then the street, and several that extend out like spider legs around it, host a crowded, tight-packed outdoor fair that sells accessories, outfits, jewelry and thrones for the Baby Jesus, or the Niño Dios.

Bring Out the Dolls

Having not grown up Catholic I was at first befuddled by the fair and over the years have gathered little morsels of knowledge to complete my picture of this tradition. It goes something like this:

brand new Baby JesusCandelaria is the celebration of 40 days after the birth of Jesus on the 24th of December. This was the period, according to ancient Jewish law, that the Virgin Mary must wait before she presented herself, once again "purified," after giving birth, in public. It was also when Mary and Joseph presented Baby Jesus at the Temple for the first time as part of the "redeeming" ritual required for Jewish firstborn sons.

The origins of the holiday are ancient, going back to pagan mid-winter festivals like Imbolc (that consists of offerings in hope for a good future harvest and the lighting of candles representative of the coming sun). Some vestiges of these ancient roots can be found at the Merced fair, where indigenous women in traditional dress sell bouquets of wildflowers and small glass tubes filled with various layers of seeds and decorated with a sheaf of wheat. Once upon a time farmers would bring seeds to the Candelaria mass in order to have them blessed for a good harvest.

Other countries also celebrate this Catholic holiday but in Mexico, as often is the case, there's an extra little twist. Each religious family has their own Baby Jesus doll, some have been passed down generation to generation, some newly purchased, and during the year the Baby Jesus has a special place in the household, a little niche or an altar where he sits all year long with his own glass of water and lit candles.

At Christmas, Baby Jesus is taken down from his perch, rocked and sung to and placed in the family's nativity scene. On Three Kings Day, friends and family gather for Rosca de Reyes cake, which is sliced into pieces, some of them with a baked in tiny baby Jesus as a surprise. The person or persons who get the Baby Jesus in their cake are Jesus's godparents for the year and are charged with buying him a new outfit and presenting him at mass. There are exceptions to this, one a particular family or person has committed to acting as the godparent of a particular Baby Jesus for the rest of their lives. But more about that later. This person must also take the family doll to the Baby Jesus hospital for any repairs—a finger that has broken off, some paint retouched.

creepy Ninos Dios

The history I encountered about the elaborate Baby Jesus outfits are two, not completely contradictory, stories. One part states that the tradition of dressing the Baby Jesus was brought to the New World by orders of Spanish nuns (in particular Santa Teresa de Jesus) that would knit or sew their own elaborate outfits for the baby Jesus that included accessories and jewels along with detailed outfits reminiscent of the baptismal gowns worn by Catholic children.

Baby Jesus shoesThe second part of this story is that February 2nd was reported by Spanish historian and Friar Bernandino de Sahagún as the beginning of the solar calendar of the residents of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and so the Niños Dios were dressed in white in order to imitate and also absorb the power of the Aztec's sun god.

While both those stories have the possibility of being true, one thing that is for sure is that a family in Mexico City, the Uribes, in the 1950s, opened their shop along Talavera street in the Merced announcing "outfits for the Baby Jesus" in six different models including several "Saint" costumes and two pajama outfits—one blue and one pink. As time went by people started requesting other costumes to depict their favorite saints until what has resulted today—hundreds of outfits including the non-so-religious "Soccer player Baby Jesus" "Doctor Baby Jesus" and "Immigrant Baby Jesus." A friend Arturo once told me you dress up your Baby Jesus in the outfits that best represents what you are praying for (so maybe San Judas if you find yourself in a desperate situation or your favorite football if you want them to win).

At one point, Mexico's archbishop published a guide to dressing the Baby Jesus, one can only assume in hopes of quelling some of the wilder characterizations, but it was no use. Generally the first year a godparent dresses the Baby Jesus in all white, after that, anything goes.

On Candelaria, February 2nd, the dolls are taken to mass to be blessed by the presiding priest, a duty I'm not sure the hierarchy of the Catholic church approves of, but a duty nonetheless if only to beat back the protests that would be sure to come from Baby Jesus households everywhere if he refused.

Baby Jesus workshop Mexico

I had watched people cradle their Baby Jesus so delicately it was obvious that this was as important as a real child to be taken care of. The Baby Jesus "hospitals" in the Merced have been packed for weeks as people bring their babies in early enought to be presentable at the Candaleria mass. At my favorite workshop the big, burly proprietor told me that they fix more than 300 babies during the season, but hundreds more over the course of the year. He invited me to come to a restoration workshop he was giving in a few weeks.

The Doll Mass Will Not be Solemn

After watching people lovingly dote on their Baby Jesus dolls all day, I could only imagine how much spit and shine there would be on the big day. I did, however, forget what I know about Mexicans and envisioned this slow, solemn procession up to the priest as he dipped a single finger in holy water and planted it on the cool foreheads of these elaborately dressed dolls in every size imaginable.

Fried fair food for Candelaria

How could I forget the white tube tops and cellphone radios of the Spring Equinox? And the weed-smoking devotees waiting to have their statues of San Judas blessed in October every year? This is just not a country that believes that things have to be boring to be serious and stuffy to be meaningful. One of the greatest qualities of Mexico and the Mexican people is a levity, an irreverence, a belief that nothing is incompatible—selfies and sacred spaces, mariachis and the Virgin Mary.

Masses happen all over the city, but the neighborhood of Candelaria in the south of the city is particularly popular for obvious reasons. I figured for my first time I ought to go big, so this was my destination for Candelaria this year, to finally see the outcome of weeks of preparation I had witnessed in the Merced.

Mariachis at Candaleria mass

I hadn't wanted to leave my house early, thinking that I might have to sit awkwardly alone as people slowly filed into the mass. I arrived right at 11:30pm and the church was so full to the brim with people it was obvious they had arrived hours earlier to get their preferred pew. Then there were the mariachis, this group markedly better than their contemporaries roving the streets and singing for a few pesos. Their brass section reverberated off the rafters in what could only be described as truly celestial melodies.

A foreigner with a camera is either greeted with disdain or with joy, and the Candaleria Midnight mass had a little bit of both. Those filled with the happiness of the day, pushed me forward, encouraging me to get up close for a good shot of the short mariachi with a massive bass guitar. They hadn't developed some new repertoire for the event but instead sang their usual songs of heartbreak and national pride. When they went into a Spanish rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," their faces solid masks of fidelity to the Christ child, I was sure lightning was going to strike them down.

boys with their Baby JesusBut instead, at the stroke of midnight, they sang the Mexican Happy Birthday song, "Las Mañanitas," and the full range of tenors, basses, and altos blending into a beautiful rendition of a song I had heard a thousand times turned it almost holy. Turning to the woman next to me I asked exactly who they were singing to, the Baby Jesus? I thought he had been born a few months back?

"The Virgin Mary," she replied incredulous, but then, having second thoughts, turned to her husband and asked "Right?"

A Holy Day With Fireworks and Beer

Maybe I should quit asking questions and just watch and listen. The mass was starting and the priest entered with a small procession of readers and the church's own Baby Jesus doll, cradled in the arms of one of his helpers. An altar boy in an Air Jordan shirt and skinny jeans scurried around arranging things on the church's altar, seeing to it that the Baby Jesus was in its proper place until the part of the ceremony where it would be placed in the waiting arms of the Virgin Mary.

There's always a lot I miss at Mexican masses. My Spanish is decent but the droning tone of the readers and the crackle of microphones—either too close to the priest's mouth or too far away—makes it difficult to get everything. I understood the message that night to be that God always answered our prayers, just as he did Simeon, a devout Jew present at Jesus's presentation in the temple, who had prayed to God to see the Savior of his people before he died. Many a Kleenex dabbed at tearful eyes and parishioners solemnly bowed their heads toward the big dolls on their laps and mouthed silent prayers.

Ninos Dios at Candaleria mass

As the priest placed the Baby Jesus in the arms of his mother Mary a coordinated set of fireworks went off in the courtyard of the church. A tower of fireworks had been set up and lit at midnight, entertaining those less interested in mass and a little more interested in the beer micheladas being sold at the stalls along the streets.

A man from the back of the church called out "Viva la Purissima Virgin!!" a shout that I couldn't imagine as anything but sacrilegious, but it was met with a resounding "Viva!!" from the crowd, showing they had no such qualms.

When finally, the priests begrudgingly acknowledged that there were a lot of Baby Jesus dolls out there to be blessed and finished up the mass to do so, the crowd surged forward, not quite like a rock concert, but a few drinks away.

People held up their baskets with dolls inside, paintings of Jesus and dolls held aloft in arms, as the priest haphazardly doused everyone in the vicinity using some holy water-soaked herbs. I saw worshipers block the wild sprays with their bent arms and turn to one side so as not to get a full gulp of holy water right in the mouth. Things converted into a somewhat orderly stampede, with happy parishioners moving off in all directions as altar boys and church helpers tried to keep a handle on things. The room loosened up even more after the first hundred or so people went through the line and people started chatting, including to me.

Ninos Dios blessing

Doll Stories on Their Big Day

A man walking away from his blessing offered his elaborately dressed Baby Jesus to me for a photo. When I asked him what the holiday meant to him I got a patient lesson on what Candelaria was and why it was important. His face lit up talking about the holiday. This was obviously a special yearly marker for him.

Lorena's NieceLorena, a woman next to me, asked if I would like to take a photo of her niece and their Baby Jesus. I agreed, envisioning a little girl cradling her Niño Dios, but turned to find her niece, a 25-year-old, high-heeled and looking chic enough to leave mass immediately for a night on the town. Lorena proceeded to tell me how her mother had passed on her Baby Jesus to a friend on the occasion of her wedding. Just like with a real child, this couple then became the Baby Jesus's godparents and had taken care of him and brought him to be blessed at mass every year for the past 46.

"Tonight, this is most emotional mass of the holiday, the most special;" she told me, eyes glistening. I silently congratulated myself that I had come to the right one.

"You really should go outside," she encouraged, "They are handing out atole."

I promised I would as I made my way to the back of the church and the last Baby Jesuses got their yearly baptism. Outside, people huddled in the cool, 2 a.m. air of Mexico City and sipped hot, chocolatey corn-based atole and sweet bread. Families sat together and kids ran in circles charged up on sugar and the magic of staying up late.

Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and translator based out of Mexico City who spends her time mangling the Spanish language, scouring the country for true stories and "researching" every taco stand in her neighborhood. She is the author of Mexico City Streets: La Roma, a guide to one of Mexico City's most eclectic neighborhoods and she chronicles her life in the city on her blog

Related Features:
Worshiping Mixed Mexico: Rebirth, Resurrection and Sacred Spaces - Lydia Carey
Handmade in Oaxaca - Tim Leffel
San Judas de Tadeo: Mexico's Defender of Lost Causes - Lydia Carey
The Threat of the Mariachi - Luke Armstrong

See other Mexico travel stories from the archives

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