Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Saints on the move

Statues of saints, or in the case above Jesus on the cross, seem always on the move in Guanajuato.

For an officially non-Catholic country the mix is an interesting one of drummers and trumpeters in military fatigues parading along with feathered dancers and faithful parishioners bearing the vacationing santo aloft on a bed of flowers.

No idea the regional religious significance of September 2, but these photos are from two distinctly separate desfiles, or parades, welcoming us on our first walk into town. One was gathering in the midst of a bustling Sunday market with a banner of San Miguel and a modest-size Franciscan saint to take on a tour of churches. The second centered around a large crucifix with a banner indicating Jesus was heading to be venerated in the Little Plaza of the Monkeys, wherever that is. Women in this procession were cradling their own personal Jesus Nino statues to be blessed by a priest.

And clustered around a planter, there were several men in drag entangled by the noontime parade assembling by the market who appeared more Saturday night leftovers than eager participants.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Putting that saintly fashion foot forward

Away from San Antonio during Fiesta… when duchesses were bowing, weighed down by their glittering trains and flashing their fancy footwear, sometimes chanclas, from atop flowery floats… we encountered a rich array of elegant gowns in a fashion show in an unanticipated setting.

Chapels lining one side aisle of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli hosted mannequins wearing some of the Virgin Mary’s most formal attire. Numerous outfits were complete with compatible cloaks and shoes and, of course, matching attire for Baby Jesus.

The basilica’s own Baby Jesus, Santo Bambino of Aracoeli, needed no additional clothes. Carved from olive wood from the Gethsemane Garden in Jerusalem, Santo Bambino always is cloaked in a much-bejeweled golden garment.

The original statue created by a Franciscan dated from the 15th century and was credited for numerous miraculous healings. At one point, Santo Bambino was carted around on house-calls to aid those too ill to visit personally.

An icon of such value attracts much interest. The French hijacked it in 1797, but it was later recovered. Thieves robbed the baby of numerous jewels in 1838, but the worst theft occurred in 1994. Santo Bambino vanished. Even thieves in prison penned public letters requesting their fellow tradesmen return the beloved Santo Bambino. Fresh olive wood was obtained from Jerusalem for the replacement now on display.

The original Santo Bambino might be missing, but, for the faithful, his powerful spirit remains with the reproduction in the basilica. Letters from around the world arrive addressed to Santo Bambino requesting mail-order miracles and are placed beside him to “read” at will. As newer ones arrive, the older requests are burned with incense.

As for the setting itself? No San Antonio ballroom can compare with the shimmering chandeliers and ornate décor found in the basilica.

Somewhere at the foundation of the enormous Basilica of Santa Maria of Aracoeli lies a Byzantine church dating from the 500s. The papacy took over the property in the 9th century, placing it under the control of Benedictines. Immense columns supporting the central nave were harvested from ancient Roman ruins. Franciscans provided much Romanesque and Gothic remodeling and expansion in the 1200s. Heavy gilding of the ceiling was completed in 1575 to thank the Virgin for her assistance in defeating the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto.

A monumental stairway, 124 steps, was added in 1348 for those praying for an end to the Black Plaque or seeking penance on their way up to the church (Okay, I confess. We took an easier approach through a side door.). In the Middle Ages, criminals were executed at the base of the stairway. In the 17th century, one of the royal princes who lived above took offense to international pilgrims sleeping on the steps and periodically rolled stone-filled barrels downward to chase them off.

Contemporary superstition claims the faithful who crawl up the stairway on their knees enhance their possibilities to win the national lottery. No point for us. We will never win any lottery. You have to pay to play.

 

Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Bite the baby; throw the party

three-kingsThe pair of skinny Santas on stilts (I know; I don’t comprehend their significance either.) who roamed the plaza in front of the Cathedral around Christmas have been replaced by itinerant trios of kings soliciting tips for family photos. This troupe was the only one around bearing gifts for Baby Jesus accompanied by the beasts (well, sort of) originally transporting them to the manger in Bethlehem on January 6.

Epiphany was always a holy day of obligation when I was growing up, another command day at church which fell within several weeks of a multitude of visits to church. But we weren’t rewarded with cake.

In Mexico, Saint Nicholas traditionally does not arrive bearing gifts for children on Jesus’ birthday. Children have to wait until the day Jesus received his presents – gold, frankincense and myrrh – delivered in tribute to him by the three kings. So, on January 6 in Mexico, Mass is followed by presents and a party with cake – rosca de reyes.

Shannon Costello's rosca de reyes

Shannon Costello’s rosca de reyes

The staff at the Library of the University of Texas at San Antonio has translated, along with helpful baking tips, a traditional kings’ cake recipe from Panes de Levadura by Josefina Velazquez de Leon, part of the collection of Mexican cookbooks, La Cocina Historica.

Not everyone in Oaxaca appears to make these from scratch. Boxes of the rings of cake have been flying off shelves in bakeries all over town.

Hidden inside each is a little figure representing Baby Jesus. If the piece you receive contains the nino, your family has to host the next fiesta specifically for Jesus on the calendar, Candelaria on February 2, or prepare the homemade tamales for the party (Whoa! I prefer the no-strings-attached prize in Cracker Jacks).

Candelaria is when all the Baby Jesuses housed by the faithful in their homes receive new clothes. Then, dressed in appropriate finery, all the little statues are carried to church to be blessed.

Hmmm. What should Jesus wear? Is Oaxaca ready to follow the fashion trends being set in San Cristobal de las Casas? Happy Kings’ Day.

And, if the kings have any gifts in mind for me, of the ancient trio, I’d prefer the gold.