The devotion to the Santo Niño de Atocha originated in Spain; it is said to be related to Our Lady of Atocha, who is mentioned in the “Cantigas” of King Alphonse the Wise in the 13th Century. In 711 the Moors held sway over vast regions of Spain and battles between Catholics and Moors were common. The latter invaded the town of Atocha, near Madrid, and were victorious keeping many Catholics captive and even prevented the villagers from bringing food and water to the captives, except children under twelve, who were permitted to assist the prisoners. For those who had no family members nearby, this would have been a certain death sentence. Fearing for the lives of the prisoners, their families prayed incessantly to God for relief and implored the Mother of God under the title, Our Lady of Atocha. One day a child around the age of twelve appeared, dressed as a pilgrim of that period, carrying a basket of food and a gourd of water. The Moors allowed Him to bring food and water every day. All the time the captives were fed, the basket and gourd remained full. The child was not known to anyone by name, but all the people realized that He was the Child Jesus, disguised as a pilgrim, who had come to their rescue. When the women heard the stories from the children about the Santo Niño, they rushed to the chapel to thank Our Lady for sending her Son. Upon entering the chapel, they noticed that the shoes of the Infant in the statue of Our Lady of Atocha were dusty and worn out. The women in the village replaced His shoes, but, time and time again found them dusty and worn out.
In artwork, the Holy Child often wears a brimmed hat with a plume and a cloak or cape ornate with the St. James shell; during the Crusades, scallop shells were the symbol of holy pilgrimages and one European variation is still referred to as “the pilgrim” or “St. James shell.” In His left hand, He carries a pilgrim’s staff fastened to the gourd, a pair of shackles, and a few spikes of wheat. In His right hand, he holds a basket which generally contains bread or flowers or sometimes it appears empty even though it isn’t. Then the flowers are depicted as outside of the basket, adorning the image to one side and they are almost always roses.
El Niño de Atocha either wears sandals or is barefoot and tradition says that He roams the hills and valleys, particularly at night, bringing aid and comfort to the needy, and thereby wearing out His shoes. Thus, some images of Him have His feet not showing at all, with the image stopping at His hemline. He is usually shown seated. The original statue of the Holy Child of Atocha is imported from Spain, and now resides in the little town of Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico. The Santo Niño de Atocha is the patron of those unjustly imprisoned, travelers and people in danger:
People traveling in those days also found themselves in great danger. Often, when visiting relatives far away, they were assaulted and killed on the roads. Many of the travelers were Catholic and innkeepers had been afraid to provide them with lodging for fear of the Moors’ cruelty. As a result, many travelers had to sleep in the open forests or near the main roads, thus making them even more vulnerable to attacks. Before long, accounts of a Boy of twelve years of age, dressed as a Pilgrim and bringing them food and drink started to emerge. He would especially appear to them when they found themselves in dangerous situations, often pointing to them the safe route to take to avoid any danger. Many times, He would accompany them on their journey. The descriptions of Him were always the same: He had a pilgrim’s dress, a hat with a plume and a cape about His Shoulders. In His left Hand, He held a pilgrim’s staff with a gourd of water attached.
Because of these miraculous events, the child received the Name of the Holy Infant of Our Lady of Atocha. Miracles abounded through the centuries, even after Spain was liberated from the Moors in the year 1492. Devotion to the Child originally focused on receiving aid for travelers or for people in prison, but, after witnessing many miracles for other intentions, the devotion spread throughout Spain and devotees were turning to Him in all of their urgent needs. How the Santo Niño arrived in Mexico is just so Catholic:
The Spanish explorers and Franciscans evangelized the new world. Many statues of Jesus and Mary were brought over from Spain; in 1554, that the statues of the Santo Niño was brought over from Atocha, Spain, to the village of Fresnillo in Zacatecas, Mexico. Immediately, many villagers claimed seeing the little pilgrim and reported miracles attributed to the Santo Niño of Atocha. The statue that came from Spain had the Holy Child sitting on the lap of His Mother. Once, the statue separated itself from His Mother. No one knows exactly how or why this happened. The people had a throne built for the Santo Niño, from where He reigns today. He is also to be found in His Own Chapel in the Santuario de Plateros.
There are mornings when the Sisters that care for the Shrine find the Infant’s shoes all dusty, from being out all night caring for pilgrims. Many people who have seen Him during the night confirm that His basket is always full of food and His gourd is always full of water, yet the statue itself has an empty basket and gourd. At times, He is referred to as the “Night Walking Infant of Atocha”. Many miracles are attributed to His Presence and the Shrine is filled with acknowledgments of these.
In Mexico city, 1996, a girl went to an eye clinic for grave eye problems. The Holy Infant of Atocha appeared to her when she was 17, assuring her that she would not feel any pain, that she would be healed, which happened to the amazement of the doctors there. There are parishes and shrines named after Him both in Mexico and in the United States, as well as Spain. Pilgrimages to Spain to honor Him are still common as are those to Mexico.
The Shrine dedicated to the Santo Niño de Atocha is run by the Poor Clares and is located in Mexico at:
Monasterio del Santo Niño de Atocha Plateros
Apartado Postal 125
99000 Fresnillo, Zac. —- Mexico
Holy Infant of Atocha Prayer
Thou art the powerful Saviour of all people,
protector of the invalid and
almighty doctor of the infirm.
Holy Infant, we honor Thee and entreat Thee.
[Here say three Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Bes to God.]
To remember this day I pray that Thou wilt answer my requests.
Holy Infant of Atocha I ask Thee with all my heart to assist me.
Please be with me in thought and spirit when I find peace,
and that Thou wilt be with me in the Heavens of Bethlehem.