23 Dec 2011

The Belén, a big Spanish Christmas tradition

Kim from Snug Harbor Bay asked me a while back about difference between Christmas in Spain and the US. Well that's a question for another post (I'm still trying to figure it out!), but decoration-wise I'd say the biggest difference lies in the holiday centrepiece in one's home: the Christmas Tree (in Anglo-Saxon/Celtic tradition), or the Belén (for the Latin community i.e. Spain, all of Latin America and I think Italy as well). You'd call it the Nativity Scene or Crèche, but that word is too small for us! Belén is the Spanish name for Bethlehem. We don't just recreate the Nativity in the Stable, we go for the whole town!!! When space allows it of course. ;o)

My mother shares memories of setting up the Belén with her Grandmother in Altea (small town up the coast). She remembers that for a long time before Christmas kids would save the silvery wrapping paper from chocolates and candies to use as part of the construction material for the Belén. And they would get bits of coal from the train tracks... Now most everything needed for the "construction" is bought in the supermarket.

When we lived in Mexico we had lots and LOTS of space to set up the Belén, now in a somewhat overstuffed apartment it can be hard to find just the right spot. This year I set it up (over at my parents') on a table under a window on the balcony, close to the tree (for extra effect with the twinkle lights!).

That table seems a bit "blah"... let's put in a background!

caught in action!

Added bonus with the tree there: perfect for "hanging" the star! :o)

Now it's time to add in the little people (and considering the size of our old Beléns, I've got a lot of material to choose from!)... and voilà!

A few details (you can click them bigger):

the Crèche

I always prefer these things at night with the twinkle lights on!

As you can see those Three Kings are posted by King Herod's castle, ready to start their journey towards Bethlehem. Every day (after Dec. 25th) we'll nudge them a few steps forward on their path. When they reach the stable on the night of Jan 5th to the 6th, we'll swap them out for these versions:

My cousin arrived the other day with her little 2 year old angel, and she LOVED the Belén! I spent at least an hour sitting next to it with her as she moved the figures around and talked about them. She was determined to save the fish and hide them from the fisherman! And when it was to go she said they all had to "go to sleep" so we left them all lying down! (it took me a while the next morning to straighten it all up again!).

Her favourite figurine was a rather unique little guy who is typical in Cataluña: the "caganet" a.k.a. the "pooping guy"! I had him discreetly hidden away where he could do his business in peace, but she pulled him out and set him on the bridge! And then we spent easily half an hour playing at being shocked because "He pooped on the bridge! Oh no! He pooped on the bridge! It stinks!" :D

My family also sets up another set, just the traditional figures from the Crèche. We used to have a wooden house we set them up in under the tree, but it didn't survive the last move across the Atlantic. My mom still hadn't found a place for them when I took their picture:

They're made of clay with cloth clothes. My Spanish grandmother got them for my mom (except for the 3 Kings which my mom got later in '95) the year we spent Christmas here in Spain (in Granada and Sierra Nevada). I think they're gorgeous!

And that's the Belén! I'll try to find time to go walk around town and take a few pictures of Alicante's "official" Belén set up in one of the Plazas, and to go the Palacio de la Diputación where there's an exhibit of more Beléns. There's actually a Belén museum in Alicante! Set up and maintained by the "Asociación de Belenistas de Alicante" which is a group of people who set up the "official" Beléns around town, and set up huge Beléns in their own houses (there's a yearly contest which some friends of my mom have won a couple of times). A museum I have yet to visit... oops!


  1. These are just WONDERFUL, Cris! I especially enjoyed seeing the creative stream and the fish, too. And I can understand why she would want them to rest now and then and lay them down to sleep! :-)

  2. That was really interesting! What a labor of love to set that all up. My favorite pieces were the fisherman and the fish. I'm still not getting the naked butt guy (Mr. Poopie pants), but he's pretty funny. Your mom's larger, traditional figurines are beautiful. Merry Christmas! If you get a chance, be sure to share your Christmas Eve and Christmas Day traditions with us - it's so interesting.


Hey there! Yes you! The quiet one in the back... I'd love it if you hung out for a bit and shared your thoughts!

I might stop by your place with an answer, but I'm more likely to reply right here so click on "email follow up comments" if you'd like to see what I and others have to say and come continue the conversation! ;o)