MEXICO CITY -- In Mexico, too, the Christmas shopping season is under way. Among the hottest selling items around the capital's central plaza are baby clothes.
But these clothes -- usually silk or taffeta gowns embroidered with gold and silver thread -- are not to be worn by someone's son or daughter. The gowns are gifts to be worn by plaster figures of the baby Jesus during the season's religious celebrations.
"It's a gift to God for all that he has given us," said one shopper in a religious store.
In a Christmas ritual that has been practiced for generations, poor and middle-class women throughout Mexico buy figures of the baby Jesus and take the naked dolls to be blessed at church at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Then the women ask a special friend to serve as the doll's godmother. That friend is charged with buying elaborate clothes for the doll and then presenting it once again to a priest at a special Mass Feb. 2, Candlemas Day.
It is believed that when the dolls are blessed, so are the families of the mother and the godmother.
"It's really a beautiful tradition that allows people to celebrate the birth of Christ and to share that celebration with their closest friends," said Sister Maria Mercedes Gonzalez, working behind the counter of a religious store.
When asked how the tradition was started, she said, "It's like many Mexican traditions. They have been practiced for so long that people don't remember why they do it. They just do."
The religious stores that circle the Zocalo, Mexico City's main retail and government square, are filled with everything from life-size figures of Jesus on the cross to brass communion goblets to robes worn by priests and nuns.
But at Christmas, store owners fill display windows with figures of smiling, ivory-skinned, brown-eyed babies. The figures -- which range from life-size to the size of an adult index finger -- are called "Ninos Dios," Spanish for Baby Jesus. They are priced from $5 to $125.
Families may use the same doll year after year, but the doll must never wear the same gown twice.
"I'm buying one for my daughter, who just got married and is decorating her new home," said Estela Castillas, 45, a telephone operator. "After three Christmas blessings, the Baby Jesus will gain the power to grant miracles."
On the other side of the counter, Maria de Lourdes Romero raced back and forth with a tape measure around her neck and her arms full of boxes.
"Sometimes we are criticized for selling these religious articles because many people who buy them are poor, and they have other needs," she said, holding up a white taffeta baby gown priced at $45. "But this is a religious country, and people need to have these things as much as they need to have food."