Nino de Atocha, or the Sacred Child of Atocha, is portrayed as a young male pilgrim with a brimmed hat with plume and cape ornate or cloak with the St. James shell. He holds a basket of roses or food and staff.
Devotion to the Holy Child began in Madrid, Spain with Our Lady of Atocha as revealed by Spanish King Alphonse the Wise in the 1200s. The Child is the patron of pilgrims with legend having him roaming the land to bring help to the helpless. This stems from the caliph of Madrid only allowing children under 12 years old to bring food to prisoners of faith.
Nino de Atocha became a symbol for Spain when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Moors. Spanish explorers carried the Child’s statues to the New World. Through time, he has been revered for miracles with special observations in New Mexico and Spain.
The legend of the Santo Niño de Atocha
It all begins in Spain around the year 711, where the Spanish Catholics find themselves being suppressed by the Moors. The Moors captured Granada and proceeded northward until most of Spain was under their control. The Spaniards turned to their Lord for strength and hope in their afflictions, as they were tortured and killed for their Faith.
The legend unfolds in a village near Madrid. The town of Atocha was also taken by the Moors. These imprisoned the men of the village in jails and dungeons that were deplorable and filthy. The Faith of these men and the rest of the village was commendable but the Moors were determined to break their hope in the Lord with one cruelty after another. The Moors developed restrictions allowing only the family members of the imprisoned to bring them food and water. For those who had no family members nearby, this would have been a certain death sentence. Before long, another restriction was issued that only children (close family members of the prisoners) under the age of twelve were allowed to bring the prisoners food and water. This new decree affected even more prisoners, as many did not have any children meeting these requirements.
The women of Atocha turned to the Blessed Mother, under the title of Our Lady of Atocha. A statue dedicated to Mary under this title was located in their chapel. In this statue, Mary is holding Her Infant Son. These women pleaded with Our Lady to beg the mercy of Her Son for their imprisoned relatives.
Before long, the children visiting their family members in the prison noticed a Boy of about twelve years of age visiting many of the imprisoned during the night. He was dressed as a pilgrim and carried food and water to the men. He somehow managed to pass by the sleeping Moor guards without them detecting Him. He refreshed the prisoners spiritually and physically with His Presence. They all knew He was the Child Jesus.
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.
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’ occupation. 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.
Source: Catholic traditions
Statue Image: Nino de Atocha statue at Santuario de Chimayo in NM