It’s nearly Christmas, so it must be time to dust off the decorations. Not for me the tree and the tinsel, the baubles and ornaments that figured so importantly in my childhood. No, since living in Spain I have discovered the art of the Nativity Scene and each year I set out my own small belén at home.
As most people do, I started off with the central stable scene – referred to here as the pesebre (manger), nacimiento (birth) or Misterio (mystery) – but as the years go by I’ve added figures and scenes and now I feel the display really does warrant the term “belén” which is the Spanish name for Bethlehem.
In my model, there’s an area depicting the shepherds on the hillside listening to the news the Angel has brought. They’ve got their flocks around them, of course, and are wearing sheepskin waistcoats to keep out the cold. I suspect that the dogs who are on guard are too like Welsh collies to be really authentic, but it’s these individual details reflecting the style and personality of the belenista that make it worth spending time looking closely at each belén.
In some models, the Three Kings will be presenting their gifts at the stable, but I prefer to have them on their journey, following the star. Each year I change the scenery and layout, but there’s always mountainous terrain for them to cross made out of papel roca – a heavy painted paper which can be crumpled and moulded to resemble rocks and mountains – and supplemented by stones and tree bark. I usually add a desert area with an oasis for them to water their animals – not real water, but a small mirror edged with bits and pieces of moss and dried plants can be quite convincing.
If I were a true belenista (the Madrid association has over 800 members and gives talks on all aspects of the craft as well as running annual competitions) I might well have a proper running river, with a mill and a turning waterwheel as well as fishermen and women washing clothes on the bank. Maybe I’d include a Quixote-style windmill as well, and further off, Herod’s palace, guarded by centurians.
The professional beléns are often customised for shops and public buildings and are usually on display from early December until shortly after Reyes (Kings’ Day) on January 6th. The figures come in all different styles and sizes, so the finished model may be tucked into a corner of a window display or take up every available inch of an office reception area.
I think I’ll add an extra scene to my own model this year. Maybe a bit more of village life. So I’ll be off later to the Christmas market in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor to see what inspires me. Maybe I’ll start a little Bethlehem market: perhaps with a potter at his wheel, the baker at his oven, a group of women spinning and weaving… The possibilities are endless.