One of the most treasured Christmas traditions in Spain is the creation and display of “Belén” – intricate nativity scenes that go beyond the conventional ensemble of the Holy Family. These scenes, populated by a variety of handcrafted figurines, depict not just the birth of Christ but also an array of everyday life vignettes, painting a comprehensive picture of what life was like in historical Bethlehem.
The tradition of Belén, which means Bethlehem in Spanish, can be traced back to the Middle Ages. However, it was St. Francis of Assisi who popularized the use of physical representations to narrate the story of Christ’s birth. Over centuries, this practice evolved and expanded in Spanish culture, transforming from simple nativity setups into grand displays of artistry and creativity.
The heart of a Belén is the stable scene where Baby Jesus lies in a manger, flanked by Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings, the shepherds, and the angel. However, a Spanish Belén goes many steps further. It includes an assortment of figurines representing different facets of life – bakers, farmers, washerwomen, and blacksmiths, along with meticulously crafted elements of the landscape such as rivers, bridges, farms, and marketplaces.
Making and collecting these Belén figurines has become an art form in itself, with artisans dedicating immense time and effort to craft these pieces with great detail. Made from materials ranging from clay and wood to porcelain and resin, the figurines can vary in size from miniature to life-size.
The city of Murcia is particularly known for its Belén displays and the craftsmanship of its figurines, hosting an annual “Feria Internacional de Belenismo” – an international fair where artists, collectors, and enthusiasts come together to display and trade these fascinating pieces.
Every year, during Christmas, it is common for Spanish homes, churches, and even town squares to exhibit their unique Belén setups. In Madrid, the city council organizes a large-scale display at the CentroCentro Cibeles, which draws visitors from all over the country.
For anyone visiting Spain during the festive season, witnessing these Belén displays is an absolute must. They offer a glimpse into a rich tradition that marries spirituality, artistry, and a deep love for history and culture. The intricate details of the figurines and their arrangements provide a fascinating insight into Spanish craftsmanship and the country’s unique way of celebrating the Christmas story.
As you explore this captivating aspect of Spanish culture, you might even feel inspired to start a Belén collection of your own, taking a piece of Spanish Christmas tradition back home with you.
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