For local Mexican families, tradition of 'niñito' gowns goes back generations

The tradition of dressing "niñito," or baby Jesus, in elaborate dresses and suits goes back generations for many Detroit-area Mexican Catholic families. However, few shops in the United States cater to the tradition, so many families routinely return to Mexico in search of outfits and clothing.

Artisans who give life to baby Jesus’ gowns work with delicacy and precision to create stunning haute couture dresses

DETROIT — The artisans trace the patterns to millimeters, cut, overlap, and sew without error. Some dresses are big enough for a 3-year-old, while others are so tiny they need to be measured with the tip of a finger.

The tradition of dressing baby Jesus has its origin in the Middle Ages. In Latin America, since the 19th century, these figures have been an essential part of Catholic tradition, even accompanying nuns in their reception of habits.

Most Latino families have only one baby Jesus, inherited from mother to daughter for generations. That is the case of the Mejía family, who has had their "niñito," or little boy, for four generations.

However, this heritage faces a challenge today, as baby Jesus' artisans are scarce in the United States, and it is difficult to find new clothes and accessories for the "niñito."

Faith heritage

“When we came to Detroit, my grandmother brought our 'niñito.' When she died, he was inherited to my mother, and when she passed away, I inherited him and he will be my children’s heritage later,” Estela Mejía said.

The creation of elaborate gowns to dress a baby Jesus is a Mexican tradition that is difficult to find in the United States.
The creation of elaborate gowns to dress a baby Jesus is a Mexican tradition that is difficult to find in the United States.

The elaboration of gowns to dress a baby Jesus is a Mexican tradition that is difficult to find in the United States.

As if he were a family member, the Mejia’s baby Jesus travels to Mexico every time they do so. “I take him because here, it is complicated to find a place where they make custom-made clothes,” Mejía said.

The first time their baby Jesus set foot on Mexican soil again was in 2000, as Candlemas day, Feb. 2 — a meaningful date for Mexicans — was getting closer.

"In Mexico, it is customary to dress the child in luxurious clothes on that day," Mejía said. "We place him in a basket with flowers or sit him on a throne. It is an important tradition because it brings families together for the blessing Mass. The celebration continues at home with ‘tamales’ and ‘atole.’"

Mejía recalls that a few days before February 2000, she bathed the "niñito" and looked for places to dress him. She didn’t find any in Detroit. She knew that her mother didn’t have that problem because she made his clothes herself.

“I couldn’t leave my ‘niñito’ like that, it would be like betraying my faith, my mother, and my grandmother, so I went to Mexico to get his clothes. There are plenty of places over there,” she said.

According to tradition, the child must wear underwear, a gown, shoes or "huaraches," a bonnet, and other matching decorative objects. The gown that Estela selected for her "niñito" was the Santo Niño de Atocha’s outfit.

Since then, she has traveled to Mexico a few days before February to select new clothes for their baby Jesus. But the pandemic presented a problem. There was no way she could travel. Even if she could, all the stores were closed.

In pursuit of a gown for Holy Week

"During the pandemic I felt desperate; this tradition is very important because it reminds of God’s love and care for us, and it is an opportunity to show our love and care for Him," Mejía said.

Diseños Lili (Lili’s Designs), located at 1811 Springwells St., in Detroit, is among the few Detroit-based providers of dresses, suits and accessories to accommodate the tradition.
Diseños Lili (Lili’s Designs), located at 1811 Springwells St., in Detroit, is among the few Detroit-based providers of dresses, suits and accessories to accommodate the tradition.

In the middle of the hustle and bustle, searching the Internet, she finally found a place, Diseños Lili (Lili’s Designs), located at 1811 Springwells St., in Detroit.

The store sells baby Jesus figures in all sizes and has been making accessories since 2007, one of the few artisans dedicated to this craft in the United States. The store creates custom suits, dresses and gowns for christenings or first Communions. Sometimes the garments incorporate rhinestones, gold threads and techniques to suit clients' requests.

Lili's Designs has made the Santo Niño de Atocha and the San Francisco outfits, but the most requested one is the traditional white gown, in its sophisticated or simpler version.

Mejía ordered a purple suit for her "niñito," as she wanted to dress him according to the liturgical color of Lent and thus live the Holy Week celebrations more fully. "I want it purple because that's how my priest dresses," she shared with Detroit Catholic en Español.

For Mejía, the baby Jesus is part of the family, and she does not want him to be left behind. This year, she wants him to use a brand-new colorful suit.

This story first appeared in Detroit Catholic en Español, the Spanish-language partner website of Detroit Catholic.

Diseños Lili (Lili’s Designs)

Open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
1811 Springwells St., Detroit, MI 48209
(313) 648-4362
Visit webpage



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