MEXICO CITY (AP) — It’s been a busy season for Maximini Vertiz. Dozens of beloved but worn and broken baby Jesus figurines will pass through the hands of the 49-year-old craftsman, restoring them in time for their annual pilgrimage to church for the Candlemas blessing.
With a steady hand holding a putty knife, Vertiz completed this meticulous task a day earlier this month. He touched the eyes of the holy statue as he tuned into the bustling street market in downtown Mexico City where he worked. More than 20 other figurines lay on his desk awaiting his repair.
Similar scenes played out in the booths all around him as rows of busy craftsmen used paint and tools to give new life to these beloved baby figurines. Some of their owners were standing nearby eagerly waiting to take them home where they would be dressed in specially made holiday costumes for Christmas. Marking the end of Christmas celebrations, the Catholic holiday falls on February 2 and commemorates the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the temple.
Most figurines – often passed down from generation to generation – spend the Christmas season in nativity scenes displayed in homes. They are placed in the nativity scene at midnight on Christmas Day, and families celebrate the occasion by wrapping the statue and rocking it while singing a lullaby.
They are usually handled with care, but accidents do happen. Some are dropped or cracked while being dressed. Others need a paint job or missing fingers replaced. Many more come wrapped in rags, broken into pieces.
“I call them puzzles,” said Vertiz, who evaluates broken icons, deciding how to make them whole again.
That day earlier this month, a woman holding a blanket approached Vertiz while he was working. Visibly sad, she opened her bundle to reveal a statue that had cracked its neck and lost its head. Already overwhelmed with repair work and several impatient clients, he had to turn her down.
The higher the number, the easier it is to fix. It can take Vertiz anywhere from 30 minutes to repair a broken 16-inch (41-centimeter) statue, or up to 3 hours for a tiny one. The price ranges from 5 to 12 dollars per piece.
Vertiz, who started out on his own in 2019, has decades of repair experience, having learned the trade from his father, who also restores religious statues at the same street market.
Catholic believers make it a priority to keep their statues of the Christ child in top condition. They believe the figures are representations of God and form spiritual and emotional bonds with them through their annual interactions, explains anthropologist and restorer Katia Perdigón in her book “My Child Jesus.”
“It is necessary to keep the image in good condition, taking care not to spoil it, or to repair it when necessary, thus enhancing its symbolic effectiveness,” writes Perdigón. “The sculpture…represents the presence of God at home as he becomes part of the family. He is a son in the hands of an adoptive mother.”
Watching Vertiz at work, Maria Concepcion Sánchez, 65, hoped the master would soon finish the three baby Jesus figures she had entrusted to him for safekeeping. One is hers and the others belong to her grandchildren.
“The blonde he’s working on is 50 years old,” said Sánchez, whose mother exhibited him at home.
Sánchez, whose family keeps a dozen of these figures on their home altars, decided to restore the statues of her grandchildren instead of buying new ones so that they could preserve their tradition passed down through the generations. One figure lost an arm while changing clothes, and another disintegrated after being thrown to the floor.
Once she is repaired and dressed for a Christmas blessing, Sánchez and her family will look to her baby Jesus for good health, having lost several of her 18 siblings, including three who died in 2022 alone.
“We’re going to dress them up as doctors and surgeons,” Sanchez said of the figures. “When you get old, you never know what might happen.”
Associated Press reporting on religion is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.