Part of what makes holidays so much fun are the unique traditions that each family has that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Each year at Christmas time, a California woman and her family have a tradition of taking out a special statue of baby Jesus and telling the story of how it came to be in their family 100 years ago. Yet for the first time in decades, the family’s tradition has finally come to an end after special agents from the U.S. Homeland Security heard where the statue really came from…
In the late 1800s, Levi and Sara Salman moved from the United States to Guanajuato, a city in central Mexico, to work as Methodist missionaries. Since they planned on staying in Guanajuato for good, the couple also brought along their 2 daughters, Edith and Clara.
A New Home
Despite being far from home in a new country with another language and strange new customs, Guanajuato became home for the missionaries and their daughters, who quickly made friends with other local kids in the city…
A New Friend
One of the local children that Edith and Clara became friends with was Chucha Arizmendi, a young boy who was part of the Arizmendi family, an aristocratic family in the city. As Edith and Clara got older, they always remained close friends with Chucha.
Even though Guanajuato had been their home for more than a decade, Edith and Clara’s parents started considering moving back to the United States after the Mexican revolution began in 1910 since many parts of the country became unsafe…
A 10-Year Fight
As people around the country rose up to end the dictatorship. everyone hoped that the fighting wouldn’t last too long, but they had no idea how long it would really take to accomplish that goal. In reality, the revolution wouldn’t be over for another 10 years when a constitutional republic was finally established in 1920.
Too Dangerous To Stay
However, after the revolution started, people started to realize that it would be a long time before they would be able to overturn the government. Many foreigners like the family of Methodist missionaries were forced to leave to avoid the violence…
A Final Request
Before Levi and Sara took Edith and Clara and moved back to the United States, Chucha reached out to his long-time friends and asked them for 1 last favor before they fled the city. Chucha trusted Edith and Clara completely and knew that this was his only chance at saving a precious family heirloom.
The Family Heirloom
Sometime after the revolution began, Chucha met with Edith and told her about a statue of baby Jesus that had been in his family for decades. He knew it wasn’t safe there as long as the country was in upheaval and asked Edith to take the statue back to America when her family fled…
The Only Way To Save Niño Dios
“Edith, I know things are getting very bad here. All the foreigners are leaving. One day you will be leaving… I want to give you our Niño Dios to take with you to the States when you go, as He will be safe there,” Chucha said to Edith.
A Deadly Battle Wound
According to Chucha, a member of his family had fought in the Battle of Guanajuato during the Mexican War of Independence, which lasted from 1810 to 1821. During the battle, Chucha’s relative was wounded badly and many believed there was no way he could survive his injuries…
A Dying Man’s Vow
Chucha’s relative prayed and vowed that if he survived his injuries, which would have been deadly at the time, he would get a statue made of ‘El Niño de Atocha’, which would be placed in the hand of the Virgin Mary at the local church in Guanajuato.
When the man miraculously recovered from the wounds sustained during the Battle of Guanajuato, Chucha’s relative made good on his promise and had a statue of baby Jesus made. Once it was completed in about 1817, the statue was placed in the church…
A Priceless Gift
When Chucha explained everything and asked Edith and her family to take the family heirloom, she didn’t want to take the statue of the Niño Dios from the family. “Why, Chucha, I could not possibly accept such a gift,” Edith told Chucha in response.
“You must, as He is not safe here. They are looting and pillaging the churches. And, what is more, I have already done the penance for giving him to you. The only stipulation is that He must always be referred to as the Niño Dios or the Niño de Atocha, and never be treated with lack of respect,” Chucha said…
Living Up To Her Word
In 1916, Edith and her family finally fled Mexico and moved back to the United States. As she promised Chucha, Edith brought the statue of Niño Dios with her and made sure no harm ever came to it for the rest of her life until she passed away in 1971.
Passing On The Responsibility
Before Edith passed away, she left the statue of Niño Dios to her niece, Marie Escher. She told her the story of the statue and made her promise to protect it and follow the same rules that Chucha made her promise to follow all those decades ago…
A Christmas Tradition
To make sure the statue was safe, Marie stored it in a box in her home in Hillsborough, California most of the year and would only take Niño Dios out around Christmas time. “Every year at Christmas time we got him out and arranged him atop the grand piano with a lovely arrangement of boughs and candles around him for the season,” Marie said.
100 Years In Their Care
“Everybody always looked forward to our Baby Jesus party around Epiphany,” Marie said about the statue that had been in her family for over 100 years and was 200 years old. But Marie knows Niño Dios doesn’t belong to her family and wants to reunite the statue with its real owner…
A Special Request
“I’m 87 years old now and I won’t be here forever, and my son really doesn’t want to take over the responsibility of the Baby Jesus,” said Marie, who wrote to Congressman Jared Huffman with the help of a friend to explain she needed help and was afraid that she feared the statue would be seized and sold to an antique dealer if they tried to return the statue to Mexico themselves. A staff member at the Congressman’s office researched the story and made an appointment for Marie to meet with Homeland Security agents.
Returning Baby Jesus
On March 16, 2018, Special Agents David Keller and Joe Hong from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquities Program met with Marie and collected the statue, which they classified as stolen property so that the agency had legal jurisdiction to take the item to its rightful owner. “I feel exhausted and relieved and delighted,” Escher said. “Everything is splendid. Baby Jesus is on his way.”