When I was doing research for my book, “Food from my Heart,” I uncharacteristically made a trip to Oaxaca in the winter. On every visit to this magical place that is my spiritual home, my first stop is the Benito Juarez market and a stall that sells all types of holiday decorations.
Doña Juana, the owner, was flanked by rows of Baby Jesus’ of all sizes—from six inches to about 2 feet tall—all dressed in luxurious outfits in royal blue or papal red velvets, satins, lace, taffeta, golden crowns. Hanging above were bunches of miniature gold huaraches (sandals), tiny scepters, and cloth flowers marked “Made in China.”
It was just before February 2, Día de la Candelaria or Candlemas Day. Candlemas celebrates the presentation of Christ at the temple by Joseph and Mary, as described in the Gospel of St. Luke. On that day, the child was acclaimed by Simeon as God’s true light. So this is the day when people bring candles to the church to be blessed.
Everyone in the shop was busy making more outfits while Dona Juana consulted with a young couple holding a small unclothed Baby Jesus. I was shocked when she told them that it will be 50,000 pesos to dress him (back then about $20), which seemed exorbitant to me. She explained that the couple had gotten a madrina—literally a godmother but in actuality a more well-to-do friend—who wanted them to be able to participate in the ceremony and offered to pick up the tab.
When I went to the church on February 2, it was filled to capacity and smelled intensely of incense and candle wax. The aroma of wood smoke from hearths stuck to everyone’s clothes. There were young and old couples, some wearing native dress of reds and shocking pinks, others in modern clothing and jewelry, widows all in black and men in working clothes. Most of the people carried a royally-dressed Baby Jesus while others carried candles to be blessed and used in times of need.
I remember this part from my childhood, when we’d light a candle for rain, good grades, lost earrings, safe trips or even to make a boyfriend call. But the elaborately-dressed figures were new to me. Each family was keeping a Baby Jesus on the home altar.
Several years ago, I went to a store in Brooklyn in January and was amazed to see stacks of clothes for the Baby Jesus on sale for the celebration. So a few days ago, I went to Sunset Park in Brooklyn to investigate if the tradition still lives on in this country. The first store where I stopped, on 5th Avenue and 42 Street, had a whole window full of Baby Jesus’ dressed to the nines and sitting in gold chairs. I inquired how much it cost to get a medium-sized statue. The grand total, including gold chair, crown and sandals, satin dress and maybe a cape, was $139. They claimed to be doing brisk business.
Holidays are one way to stimulate the economy, both here and there.