Part of the scene set up by an association of Belén enthusiasts in Almuñécar. Below, a scene from the real-life nativity in Malaga. / SUR

Away in a manger

Long before Christmas trees were popular, the tradition in Spain saw families get together to arrange a scene representing the birth of Jesus

TONY BRYANT

Towns and villages all along the Costa del Sol and inland have been decked out with Christmas trees, decorations and an array of illuminations in order to get everyone in the mood for the festive season, and the only thing lacking is a coating of crisp white snow. However, this Dickensian image has only become popular in Spain over the last 30 years or so, because before the British and American festive influence engulfed the country, Christmas decorations were centred around the Belén, the Spanish word for Bethlehem, and also for the traditional nativity scene.

Long before Christmas trees were commonplace in the home and in public spaces, the tradition in Spain saw families get together to arrange a scene representing the birth of Jesus, complete with the Holy Family huddled in a stable surrounded by farm animals and receiving visits from angels, shepherds and the three kings or wise men.

With Spain being a traditionally Catholic country, Belén has also become a common girl's first name.

There have been many attempts to put a date on the origin of the Belén, although one of the earliest was discovered in the early Christian catacomb of Saint Valentine in Rome.

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first live nativity scene in Italy in 1223, with which he is said to have attempted to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon material things.

The Belén gained popularity in the 18th century, when King Charles III commissioned a nativity scene for his son, the future King Charles IV: this creation was said to have been so impressive, it was copied by the Spanish nobility and was extended over time to many Spanish homes.

By the end of the 19th century, nativity scenes became commonplace in Spain, and many versions in various sizes made of different materials, such as terracotta, paper, wood and wax, were constructed.

Today, in the weeks leading to Christmas, most towns will hold street markets that specialise in the sale of figures and models. These will range from basic plastic figures and buildings, to expensive paper, resin or carved wooden models, along with a multitude of accessories with which to create an elaborate nativity scene.

Since their humble beginnings, these scenes have evolved into huge displays dominating the entrances of town halls, churches, shopping centres and municipal buildings, and the figures and landscapes used to create them have also changed considerably. Today, the simple manger scene has evolved into elaborate constructions with moving figures and scenes representing day and night, the traditions of the rural way of life, and even falling snow and shooting stars.

Unusual addition

In some regions of Spain there is something quite extraordinary to look out for in a nativity scene, something that is not normally found anywhere else: the caganer, or the pooper.

Normally hidden among the more traditional figures, the caganer is a representation of a male peasant in a red hat, crouched with his buttocks exposed and a small pile of excrement at his feet.

This tradition dates back around two centuries, although it is not known what gave rise to this unusual addition. One thing for sure is that the caganers are big business. Manufacturers of these models now focus on current affairs to create figurines resembling anyone from Shakespeare and Darwin, to the Pope, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Madonna or Mr Bean.

It has also become customary for some provinces to include figures representing local traditions, such as in Malaga, where El Cenachero, the shoeless fish vendor who carries his catch in esparto baskets; or El Biznaguero, the seller of potent flowers made from jasmine.

Live nativity scenes

Live nativity scenes (belenes vivientes) are also part of the cultural heritage of the region of Andalucía. In addition to paying tribute to the tradition of Saint Francis of Assisi by bringing the Christmas story to life, they serve as a popular tourist attraction.

The live scenes are organised by town halls and the brotherhoods of different parishes in selected areas, and consist of people dressed as Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, along with the kings, shepherds, farmers and angels. They also include animals like oxen, donkeys and sheep.

In Malaga, for example, a live nativity scene is staged at the Casa Diocesana (Pasaje de los Almendrales 2-4) on Saturday 17 December. Visitors will be immersed in seven different scenes from the most important moments of Christmas, which will be interpreted by students of the Padre Jacobo Diocesan School.

Other live nativity scenes will be held throughout the province of Malaga, information of which can be found on the websites of the relevant town halls.