December 19, 2011

Local Vocab: "El belén" – The nativity scene as a Spanish Xmas tradition

Our less-than-traditional belén, which
we bought at Intermón Oxfam. I wanted
one that would remind me of home.
One very typical Spanish tradition around Christmas time, which I encourage everyone to pay attention to for the next few weeks is "el belén" (Bethlehem, a.k.a. the Nativity scene). 

For starters, it is common for people here to have a miniature belén in their homes, perhaps in a hallway or in some display spot, as an essential holiday decoration. So there is a lot Xmas paraphernalia for building simple, personalized or incredibly elaborate belenes. Putting out the belén goes hand-in-hand with putting up the plastic Christmas tree as 'must dos' in preparing for the holidays.

My in-laws' more conventional belén has just the basics... Center: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus;
the angel, cow, and oxen; Right: the Three Kings ("los reyes magos"); Left: the shepherd boy
plus sheep... and "el cagador" (discussed below)

Probably the best place in Spain to go shopping for new additions to your
belén is La Fira de Santa Llúcia, in the center of Barcelona for two weeks
in December. The specialty at this market fair is Nativity scene decorations
as well as other Christmas paraphernalia.

Though in Madrid there is also the Mercadillo navideño de la Plaza Mayor

One curious fixture of the Spanish belén is "el caganer" (Catalan for "el cagador" or the crapper). Apparently, this guy has been a classic member of the belén family display in Catalonia since at least the 18th century, he wears a traditional regional cap, and has even managed, perhaps not surprisingly, to take on some degree of Catalan symbolic cultural importance as its signature contribution to the Catholic tradition. (It is important to note that this piece is _always_ placed somewhere discretely on the edges of one's belén, far away from the baby Jesus, _never_ at the center with the Holy family.)

"El caganer." This Catalan figurine and humorous twist on the
holiday belén tradition is, well, kind of gross, or honest, depending
on how you see it. It has fast become a fixture of most Spaniard's home display

Here you can see the National Selection Soccer Team, available for sale
 as "el caganer". Needless to say, you can also find this figurine
 for most political figures and famous people.

If you are into it, there is a real collectors opportunity in Spain with these
decorative nativity scene pieces, as there are thousands and thousands of them.

But in addition to this home decoration tradition, there are also some impressive large display belenes that you can probably visit in your Spanish town. And I'm not talking about the city Nativity scene (usually placed outside on the Townhall Square, a.k.a. "Plaza del Ayuntamiento"). Private aficionados collect or make pieces until they have a spectacularly large miniature Bethlehem with thousands of pieces.

This image, Valencia's town hall nativity scene on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento,
would look familiar to Americans, though the Three Kings are usually featured more prominently
since in Spain they (more than Santa Claus) are traditionally the ones kids expect gifts from.

In and near Valencia, there are two really nice publicly displayed (though not free) belenes, worth making the trip to see. The easier of the two to get to is the belén in the Catedral de Valencia on the Plaza de la Vírgen, which this year has around 300 figurines. (Open: M-F 10-13.30h, 16-20h; Sun. 11-14h.)

One of the figurine scenes in the Catedral de Valencia's annual belén.

But the more impressive one is in the town of Meliana north of Valencia. Melchor Almela Lagarda, member of the "Asociación Belenista de Valencia," started this "Belén de Roca" together with his family in 1990. (You can get an idea of the time and effort invested in it, by looking at the photos of their "Cómo se hace el belén" webpage.) At more than 50 square meters in size, and with more than 5000 pieces, it is a spectacular thing to see. (Open: Everyday 11-14h, 16.30-20.30h. You can get to Meliana by the metro (Line 3), and it's a few minutes walk to it from the "Meliana" metro stop.)

This family owned belén in Meliana is really worth the trip just
 out of town. The detail and elaboration is pretty incredible.

Both the Cathedral and Meliana belenes will be up well into January... or at least, that is, until the weekend after Reyes (on January 6th). The detail and craftsmanship on these belén figurines and Bethlehem settings are pretty impressive. So whether or not you are into the whole Christian Christmas thing, I highly recommend going to it at least once. (And for those of you who do not living near Valencia, you can look here or here for the Association of "Belenistas" from your town to see if there are some similar belenes near you. After a quick search, I found that in Madrid there is a display that sounds pretty impressive in the Galería de Cristal del Palacio de Cibeles, among othersPlease post here if you find one you really like!)


An Expat in Spain said...

One of the expat bloggers whose posts I follow recently wrote this nice entry on belenes in Madrid, for anyone living there who's interested in this typical holiday tradition there:

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