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Broken baby Jesus statues flood restorers ahead of feast day

MEXICO CITY (AP) — It is Maximinio Vertiz’ busy season. Dozens of beloved but worn and broken baby Jesus figurines will pass through this 49-year-old craftsman’s hands, restoring them in time for their annual pilgrimage to church for a Candlemas blessing.

Holding a putty knife with a steady hand, Vertiz went about this meticulous task on a day earlier this month. He touched up the sacred statue’s eyes as he tuned out the bustling downtown Mexico City street market where he worked. More than 20 other figurines lay on his worktable awaiting his repairs.

Similar scenes were playing out in the booths all around him as rows of busy craftsman used paint and tools to give new life to these beloved infant figurines. Some of their owners stood nearby eagerly waiting to take them back home where they will be dressed up in special-made saint costumes for Candlemas. Marking the end of Christmas celebrations, the Catholic feast day falls on Feb. 2 and commemorates the Virgin Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation at the temple.

Most of the figurines – often passed down from generation to generation – spend the Christmas season in Nativity scenes displayed in homes. They are placed in creches at midnight on Christmas Day and families celebrate the occasion by swaddling the statue and rocking it while singing a lullaby.

They are typically handled with care, but accidents happen. Some are dropped or cracked while being dressed up. Others need their paint touched up or their missing fingers replaced. Many more come wrapped in cloths, broken into pieces.

“I call them puzzles,” said Vertiz, who assesses the shattered icons, determining how to make them whole again.

On that day earlier this month, a woman cradling a blanket approached Vertiz as he worked. Visibly sad, she opened her bundle to reveal a statue that had cracked at the neck, losing its head. Already overwhelmed with repair work and a few impatient clients, he had to turn her away.

The larger the figure, the easier it is to repair. It can take Vertiz anywhere from 30 minutes to fix a busted 16-inch-tall (41 centimeters) statue or up to 3 hours for a tiny one. The cost ranges from $5 to $12 per piece.

Vertiz, who struck out on his own in 2019, has decades of repair experience, having learned the profession from his father who also restores religious statues in the same street market.

Catholic devotees prioritize keeping their statues of the Christ child in top condition. They believe the figures are representations of God, and form spiritual and emotional attachments with them through their annual interactions, anthropologist and restorer Katia Perdigón explains in her book, “My Baby Jesus.”

“It is necessary to keep the effigy in good condition, taking care of it so that it does not break, or repairing it when necessary, thus reinforcing its symbolic effectiveness,” Perdigón writes. “The sculpture … represents the presence of God at home as he becomes part of the family. He is a son in the hands of the adoptive mother.”

Watching Vertiz work, María Concepción Sánchez, 65, hoped the repairman would finish with the three baby Jesus figures she entrusted in his care soon. One is hers and the others belong to her grandchildren.

“The blond one he’s working on is 50 years old,” said Sánchez, whose mother used to display it at home.

Sánchez, whose family keeps about a dozen of these figures on their home altars, opted to have her grandchildren’s statues restored instead of buying new ones so they could preserve their tradition of passing them down through the generations. One figure had lost an arm when its clothes were changed and the other broke into pieces after being dropped on the floor.

Once repaired and dressed up for their Candlemas blessing, Sánchez and her family will ask their baby Jesus’ for good health, having lost several of her 18 brothers and sisters, including three who died in 2022 alone.

“We will dress them up like doctors and surgeons,” Sánchez said of the figures. “When one is old, you never know what might happen.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.