The Belén – a Spanish tradition

Long before the Christmas tree became a common sight in Spain, tradition centered exclusively on the Nacimiento or Nativity scene, also known as a Belén.  The emphasis on Christmas Eve is still, in many cases, on family and the commemoration of the birth of Christ while the Three Kings arrive in Spanish cities with great pomp, as witnessed by thousands of children and grown-ups watching any of the parades, large and small, in cities and villages on the night of the 5th of January.  The Kings are in charge of depositing presents – or, in the case of naughty children, (candy) coal – in children’s shoes.  However, nowadays, both the Christmas tree and the Belén cohabit comfortably; decorated trees are visible in many windows and doorways, while the city’s illuminations have lately included large wire trees in many of the main squares that, although they look a bit odd in the daytime, light up impressively at nightfall.

When I was a child growing up in a Catholic family, we always put up both a tree and the Nativity.  A dresser in the hallway was cleared off and moss was laid down to make a field.  The stable was set up in one corner, moss-padded bricks formed a hill opposite.  From here, the Kings would wend their way towards the stable.  The requisite shepherds with their wooly sheep dotted the landscape.  The Baby’s wooden crib was stuffed with itchy-looking hay and our tradition included placing him into this uninviting bed when we came home from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Carlos and I started our own Belén soon after we got married.  We bought our “misterio” in an old shop downtown, just around the corner from the Plaza Mayor.  This shop sold religious figures all year round.  The narrow entrance was set back between two small windows displaying plaster saints, virgins, rosaries.  Inside, a wooden counter ran around three sides of the tiny space and, beyond that was a door in the back wall that presumably leading to the storeroom.  Most curiously, over this door was a triptych:  three black-and-white photos of family members, their untimely fate written underneath for all to see; they’d been shot in the early days of the Civil War.  (Sadly, just the other day we walked past and saw that the shop is now closed, although the wares are still visible in the windows, looking musty.  I couldn’t help wondering where the photographs of the deceased now hang.)

The misterio would be considered the core of the scene, the first step for anyone wanting to build up their Bethlehem.  It consists of the Virgin Mary, the baby, Joseph, the ox and the ass and maybe an angel and one shepherd.  In the early days, we used to put it out on a table, with no further fanfare.  But, as the years passed and our family grew, so did our Nativity.  We soon got into the habit of going down to the Christmas market held in the Plaza Mayor during the month of December, and buying one figure per year.  One year, it was the three kings, wrapped in their own bulky box, to complete essential components.  Another year, on a rainy Saturday, we found a wonderful scene:  four shepherds resting around a fifth piece which was the fire and a tripod holding their pot of steaming stew.  One shepherd has a basket of apples by his side, another is leaning pensively on a stick, a third is warming his hands over the fire.  Only one seems to notice that an angel is about to appear and make an announcement to them; his head is just going up and the beginnings of awe can be seen in his expression.     Other additions throughout the years of our family history have been a washerwoman and a fisherman, which we naturally place on the shore of our river (crinkled up tinfoil); sometimes they are on opposite sides of the river but no matter, we have a rustic wooden bridge for easy travel.  A robed man stands in the shade of a tree, his donkey resting at his side.  He is invariably put next to the lady standing by the well with the pot of water held gracefully on her shoulder.  In an open-fronted house with a rickety looking cork roof sits an old lady hand-spinning plain white cotton from a basket at her feet onto a spindle; outside, her burly bearded son the blacksmith hammers at a horseshoe lying on his anvil, a leather apron covering his shirtless torso.

The result of all this is that the place is really crowded now.  Our scene would suffer from  Victorian fussiness if we continued adding to it.  We moved on to buying details:  a sack of lentils, a bundle of firewood tied with cord, a couple of dogs, a hen sitting on a bed of plaster hay, and chicks to strew around the stable.  We simply don’t have room for some of the newer inventions, like the waterwheel that works with a hidden pump so that water actually flows.

But, once you’ve put up your own Belén at home, you can then take in any of the many beautiful scenes to be found all around the city.  In churches, convents, museums, the Palace, one can find belenes of all sizes, from busy hamlets peopled with artisans to the entire region of Bethlehem.  Simple houses of one or two storeys, striped curtains covering arched doorways, with washing hanging up to dry on a second-floor terrace.  A street market with stalls and vendors hawking cakes or clay jugs and plates, groups sitting at plain wooden tables outside a tavern.  Farmers ploughing their fields or planting vegetables in neat patches.  A stone fountain covered in moss where townsfolk gather to fill their pitchers with fresh mountain water, lingering on to talk.  And always, at the back and on the top of a distant mountain, Herod’s palace guarded by centurions in full regalia.

Our favorite Belen, when the boys were small, was just two blocks away, at the San Rafael Hospital.  Walking up together in the early winter dusk of late afternoon, we’d join the line of visitors, waiting our turn outside where restless children could run and play up and down whiling away the time.  The line moved quickly and soon enough, we passed through a green metal door into a short, brightly lit hallway.  A few meters on, a heavy curtain of some thick dark material closed off the inner sanctum.  This was presided over by a man who was in charge of letting through groups of 15 or 20 people at a time.  Once through, we’d find ourselves 2 or 3 deep, taking in a scene that covered the entire width and a good three-quarters of the depth of the room.  Children and adults alike leaned as far over the metal railing separating viewers from figures as possible.  The Virgin was lying on a bed of straw, staring down at the new baby, St. Joseph anxiously keeping watch.  The rest of the layout had the familiar elements:  mountains in the background (there are always mountains in the larger Belenes which, while no doubt a feature of the local geography, are also very handy in that this raised-up background allows viewers to be able to see a lot more of course.  Some of the scenes are so large that the whole middle would be invisible in the distance or hidden behind the various structures, although I just saw one this year that solved the problem very nicely by setting figures up in such a way that they could be glimpsed through doorways or half-crumbling open passageways), a glass river flowing down to the foreground, villagers, shepherds, Roman soldiers keeping warm around a fire in a doorway – there’s always an element of Romantic folly in these scenes – , sheep, dogs, trees, the Kings descending from a far-off hilltop.

But what made this special was that, only a few minutes after filing in, and with just enough time to absorb all the details, the room would darken, imitating nightfall.  Slowly, stars appeared in the sky, fires lit for cooking and warmth began to appear, dim at first then gradually growing bright.  In seconds, the room was completely dark save for the glowing moon and the stars burning sharp against the domed ceiling.  Figures lost their detail, becoming black shapes merging with dark rocks or doorways.

And then, time-lapsed, night would pass, the dawn would slowly light up the sky again, blurring stars and fires and moon.  People would once more become distinct as the new day began.

It all took only a few minutes.  The room lights returned us to reality, and we’d file out to leave room for the next group.

But the highlight of the visit for my sons came next, I’m almost sorry to say!  We’d exit the small room into a large hall exiting biblical times to modernity.  Here was set up an elaborate train.  I don’t know if this was closed the rest of the year, what it had to do with a nativity scene or how this addition came into being, but it was beautifully done.  The décor was German, as were the trains.  There was a town square with Victorian-style buildings and gas lamps and wreaths on the doors.  On a hill behind the town stood a pine forest, protecting a glass lake.  In the background, next to factory, a funicular transported coal up and down.   On the road that led away from the town square to the countryside, winding up a hillside to the right there was even a traffic accident with green-jacketed polizei and an ambulance. And circulating throughout the entire scene, three or four trains at a time, going through tunnels and over bridges.  Again, as in the belén, flat overhead lights would periodically be turned off, plunging the room into darkness only relieved by lamps and windows of the houses shining through the dark so that we could follow the trains’ headlights as they ran in and out smoothly along the tracks.  In this much bigger room, with the trains set up in the middle, it was possible to walk freely around the large table, taking in each and every details, with no impatient group waiting to be ushered in and move us along.  We certainly spent at least twice as long there in the big hall.

The days of taking the kids to around the city at Christmas time are long gone.  Carlos and I still enjoy visiting one or two belenes every Christmas but we go alone now.  The boys are not fans; that family tradition doesn’t seem to have left its mark on them.  But the train was a huge draw for many years.


Written by Clea.

This entry was posted in Clea, Spanish Traditions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Belén – a Spanish tradition

  1. Marge Muzzillo says:

    Wonderful, Clea! Your word-pictures enthralled me. I could see your Belen and the one at St. Rafael. and also recalled visiting Belenes way back when. Do neighborhood children still come to your door, asking to see your Belen, and probably hoping for a bit of candy? I can recall that our Christmas tree was a poor substitute.

    • clea says:

      No, Mrs. Muzz – at least not in apartment buildings! The old days of the aguinaldo and the zambomba are long gone, I think, except for maybe after Christmas Eve dinners. Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. Illya says:

    Loco for locomotives — that’s great!

  3. mike ingrisano says:

    You might be surprised how much of the tradition returns when the boys have their own families…memories can come flooding back in a heartbeat and as you sort through them you tend to keep the ones that mean the most. Up the street from my house, in Freeport, the home of L L Bean, they have a tradition of the live nativity…locals taking turns playing the roles of the Family and shepherds, standing stock still, not talking, in the cold Maine winter night. It never fails to draw a crown and leave a strong impression.

    • clea says:

      I’ll bet it’s impressive, Mike, as well as freezing cold. When we were in Maine/NH, we heard about the carolling service in Kennebunk, and saw lots of photos of the snow-covered square. Really lovely.

  4. Susan heston says:

    I enjoyed learning more about the Belen so thank you . I loved your own personal story too and could picture it as you described in such beautiful detail.

    • clea says:

      Thanks so much for your comment and positive feedback, Susan! I hope that you get to enjoy some of the beautiful Belenes set up around the city.

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