(This story originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)
BRADENTON — Maria Cristina Pagan pulled a basket from an infant car seat Wednesday evening in the parking lot of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church.
Nestled inside on a white blanket dotted with cloverleaves lay a statue representing Baby Jesus, dressed in a green satin gown lined with gold sequin trim. On the figurine’s brown locks sat a crown covered in patterned fabric.
“This Baby Jesus represents the light,” Pagan said proudly in Spanish, “because this is the light of the world.”
Pagan, 67, is one of many Catholics who dress figures of the Christ Child for Candlemas (in Spanish, Día de la Candelaria), a holiday celebrated annually Feb. 2. The celebration is also known as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which marks 40 days after Jesus Christ was born and the day believed to be when Mary and Joseph presented Baby Jesus to the Temple.
“That’s when Simeon, of course, was told that he would not see death until he sees the Messiah — the Christ Child,” said Father Salvator M. Stefula, who has been pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church since 2008.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Simeon was a righteous and devout man. From his meeting with the Christ Child came Simeon’s famous prayer, according to Stefula.
“For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,” the pastor recited.
Pagan, a member of the church’s Spanish Committee, brought her Baby Jesus to church this past Tuesday to receive a blessing.
“It’s something so beautiful, so sacred,” she said, her voice overcome with emotion. “For us, this represents everything.”
Stefula said candles are blessed on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord for use throughout the year at church.
“The tradition is, in many places, they (parishioners) will bring candles from their home and they will be blessed on that day,” he said. “I was not familiar with the tradition of the statues of the Christ Child coming to church on this day. This was all new to me.”
The tradition is popular in Mexico and in countries throughout Central and South America, where each figurine is usually dressed as a saint.
In Bradenton, Stefula said he’s seen many Latino parishioners bring Baby Jesus statues to church. Some are dressed in elaborate garments; others are brought in miniature chairs.
“I think it’s a beautiful tradition,” he said. “I can see why they would do that because this is the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple. … the statue representing Christ.”
Do it yourself Baby Jesus
Pagan, who remembers loving church as a young child growing up in La Ceiba, a city on the northern coast of Honduras, decided to dress her own Baby Jesus because she found outfits sold in stores were too expensive.
“Since I know how to sew, I prefer to do it myself — my way,” she said.
It took the retired business owner a day to gather the materials and piece together an outfit after Saint Patrick, a decision based on Pagan’s birthday (March 17), which also happens to be Saint Patrick’s Day. Pagan removed the crown tenderly, showing how she had made it from oak tag paper and gold gimp trim.
Elvira Villalobos, a fellow parishioner on her way to pray at the church with two girls and a teenage boy in tow, stopped to admire Pagan’s Baby Jesus.
“How beautiful!” she said in Spanish as she leaned forward in wonderment.
Villalobos encouraged Rosa Maria Campos, 2, to kiss Baby Jesus. The toddler bent down and gave the doll a peck.
“No, no, no, it’s not a doll,” Villalobos gently corrected a Herald reporter.
“Es el Niño Dios (It’s the Christ Child),” Pagan offered.
Villalobos repeated after Pagan. Both women laughed.
“Much respect,” Villalobos said, a smile widening on her face. “To us Latinos, it’s Baby Jesus, not a doll.”
Inside Sacred Heart Catholic Church sat 54-year-old Elvia Ortiz, one of Pagan’s friends. The Bradenton resident, who is originally from Mexico, had two Baby Jesus statues made of plaster with her — a large one with rosy cheeks that she’s had for 9 years, and a miniature one she’s had for 19. Ortiz said she grew up with the tradition in her native hometown and now keeps one at an altar in her bedroom, where she prays often.
“For me, this tradition is beautiful because it brings a lot of happiness to the home,” Ortiz said. “Even though it isn’t the same here, in our native countries I remember the happiness He brought because it was a very festive time.”
This Sunday, Ortiz and Pagan plan on bringing their Baby Jesus figurines to church for blessings. Though she already had her Baby Jesus blessed this week, Pagan said she would feel bad if she didn’t fulfill the tradition again.
“I wouldn’t feel satisfied because, for me, faith is everything. Faith is believing in what we can’t see — and what we can’t see is the Lord,” she said. “If we don’t have faith, we don’t have anything in life.”