[Click on any photo to enlarge]
Santa is of little consequence in Spain – even for kids. ‘Papa Noel’ as he’s known here, doesn’t bring any presents at all to many households and maybe just the token one or two to others. For here it is the three kings or ‘wise men’ who take the starring role, bringing the main haul of presents to the children – and they don’t deliver until 6th January: the day of ‘Los Reyes Magos’.
This tradition keeps Catholic Spain and some Latin American countries closer to the real meaning of Christmas – yet, just as in the UK and elsewhere, it has also become a commercial opportunity, albeit on a smaller scale.
Every family constructs its own nativity scene at home, with as much excitement as we select and decorate our Christmas trees. To cater for this demand, the Belén (Bethlehem) market sets up next to the cathedral weeks in advance – 18 stalls all selling models for the nativity scenes. This may seem excessive to the uninitiated, given the limited nature of our own modest nativity scenes.
Here, however, the familiar figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, the three kings, shepherds, angels, donkey, stable and manger are supplemented by more unusual and exotic characters…
Ranging from beautiful hand painted representations to frankly tacky doll-like figures, you can buy anything you may want to include in your wider Bethlehem scene, from conventional camels to the less likely bull ring complete with bullfighter and toro!
People make their nativity scene from scratch, so you can buy basic materials such as cork and sand, unbelievably expensive ‘stables’, inns (at which there is no room) and even bars and shops with hanging hams and sausages. Included in your scene may be working ‘water features’, moving characters and just about any vegetable, plant or animal which fires your imagination – including mice just a few millimetres in size, which would set you back 2 euros apiece!
Some of the most outlandish figures I saw included Herod’s soldiers massacring babies, a horse giving birth (to a foal of a similar size to its mother) and a human character squatting to defecate….
Good taste is maintained however in the many large-scale nativity scenes on display in public squares and buildings and almost every church (and there are many). These are lovely to see and, like those lovingly made in people’s homes, are a moving reminder of what Christmas is all about. Many of the ecclesiastic versions are splendid and vary to reflect the affiliations of the church – one that I saw, linked to El Rocio, (see earlier blog) included gypsy caravans and representations of the church, buildings, lake and wildlife of that amazing town.
Christmas is altogether more low-key, a lot less brash, and more religious here. I found it difficult, for example, to find much of a selection of Christmas cards – they haven’t fallen for that widespread money-making racket on the scale that we have – so far (but I dooo still like to receive them….). The most important day of the Christmas season in Spain is Christmas eve, when families get together to share an evening meal and go to Mass.
Back to the important subject of present-giving though…. Like our Santa tradition, the children write to the three kings telling them what they would like to receive and post their letters in special boxes. Real camels arrive in the city centre to give rides, next to ‘live’ nativity scenes – not a reindeer in sight. The kings deliver the presents during the night of the 5thJanuary, and this being a rather warmer climate that ours, chimneys down which to climb are in short supply – so the kings climb up the balconies instead! Children leave out “mantecados” (traditional Christmas biscuits) and a drink of Anis for the kings (ironic that we leave Spanish sherry for Santa..) and a bowl of water for their camels, who are rumoured to eat plants from the balconies…
As our British Christmas will be well and truly over by January 5th (the 12th night, time to take down your tree!), I look forward to being back in Seville to continue festivities and enjoy the best of both worlds… though I’m not sure the three kings will have much time for an Inglesa…