Photos by Toni François
NIÑO FUTBOLISTA (CHILD SOCCER PLAYER)—Most Mexicans are fanatical about two things: soccer and religion. Naturally, many pray to Niño Futbolista during shootouts, corner kicks, and any other time a miracle is needed on the field. He’s so popular that he’s displayed year-round at the San Miguel Church in Tacuba, Mexico City.
Mexican Catholics think Baby Jesus is so goddamn adorable they can’t resist putting him in all sorts of cute little outfits and costumes. This is especially true in December, when the veneration of Niño Dios (God Child) kicks into full gear. On Christmas Eve, families gather around their Nativity scenes to delicately place a figurine of the newborn Christ into his manger, where he will rest until February 2, the date of the Candlemas celebration commemorating the purification of the Virgin Mary.
Officially, the Catholic Church approves only a handful of variants, such as the Niño Divino (Divine Child), the Good Shepherd, and the Baby Jesus of Nazareth. All represent the same Christ child but are dressed differently, depending on the type of prayer or virtue associated with each look. But the practice has evolved beyond its sanctioned roots and has become a mini-industry in the process. Today, elaborate Christ figures are available in many different sizes, poses, and skin colors; it is common to see them dressed in pajamas, surgeon scrubs, princely robes, and even the garb of Aztec warriors.
First introduced by Europeans more than 400 years ago, Baby Jesus figurines are traditionally given as gifts, with the giver appointed godparent of the child for the next three years. During this time he or she must provide clothes for the little one, following a mandatory dress code: Year one sees the child wearing a white knit outfit; during the second it is dressed like an angel (including gilded wings); and for the third year the godchild is adorned in a celestial white robe. After this final stage, the godparents are dismissed and the figure can be dressed to reflect its keeper’s prayers—even if this means dressing Baby Jesus as a soccer player on one’s favorite team.
Doña Lupe owns a mini-Jesus tailoring operation in Mexico City and says the market is booming. In just seven years, her company has grown from a roadside stand to a well-established wholesaler. “We produce all the costumes during the year, and from December to February we focus only on selling them,” she said. “I ship products all over the country, to places such as Matehuala, Monterrey, and Oaxaca. I even have a new customer in Denver.”
Although some church officials condemn the custom, arguing that Jesus should be not dressed up like a child’s doll, many priests have come to terms with the practice. At the Church of San Bartolomé we met Fray Pedro, a priest in his 80s who was ordained when he was 13. “It is not the image that matters, but the love we show is what really keeps all this going on,” he said. “Since God is all and God is love, then we are all praying to the same ol’ friend. The Virgin Mary is dressed and named different ways in many countries. Even the image of Jesus in the cross is altered. He was crucified naked! We place that white piece of cloth around his waist out of mere respect.”