Nativity scenes in Spain: a typical Christmas tradition
A traditional nativity scene
Christmas is here again, and Spain's streets are starting to sparkle with lights, gifts and festive spirit… But what about those other reasons to choose Spain for a getaway at this time of year? These are the scenes of the birth of the baby Jesus: the typical Christmas cribs. Either traditional, living, innovative, life-size, featuring a wealth of technical details, created by artists… you'll find them in practically every town and village, and you'll see some amazing examples.
The tradition of creating nativity scenes to commemorate the birth of Jesus in Spain is thought to be some seven centuries old. Nowadays, when the Christmas season comes around (from approximately the beginning of December until 6 January), most towns and villages install a crib scene in their Plaza Mayor square, in their churches, and in every home… Many of these have evolved spectacularly, and now include moving pieces and special effects which amaze everyone who sees them. Normally all the figures are made by hand using traditional methods, and represent the typical stories from the Bible such as Jesus' birth in the stable, the angel's appearance to the shepherds, the Three Kings being guided by a star to a crib in Bethlehem…
Living nativity scenes. Where to go
One of the most successful versions can be found in the tradition known as 'living nativity scenes'. These involve the local inhabitants in each town who dress up as typical characters and take part in an authentic tableau of the Nativity. What's more, there is usually a range of typical local produce on offer for the spectators to enjoy. Would you like to find out some of the most famous?
Since 1988 the town of Buitrago in Madrid has enacted a famous living nativity scene featuring around 200 actors who take the roles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the stable, the shepherds and the Three Wise Men…
Arcos de la Frontera in Cadiz, decorates its streets with palm leaves, and the local inhabitants enact all the scenes from the birth of Jesus.
The area of Valladolid in Castile-León is also famous for its living nativity scenes. Of all the performances on offer, we suggest you see the one in Cabezón de Pisuerga. You'll be convinced you've travelled back in time thanks to the depiction of a range of traditional crafts: carpenters, blacksmiths, washer women and millers…
The crib in Bàscara (Girona) (with caves, vegetation, drinking fountains…) is a tradition which dates from 1973. Today over 300 actors transform the town into a recreation of the Palestine of over 2000 years ago.
Another event well worth seeing is the religious mystery play of the Three Kings in Sangüesa (Navarre). It takes place every 6 January, and unlike all the previous options, it is not just a normal living nativity scene – it is an open-air staged drama (written in verse in 1900) representing the arrival of the Three Kings to worship the baby Jesus.
Museums and Street markets
The tradition of these Christmas cribs is so widespread in Spain that there are various museums dedicated to this theme. Some of the best are located in the area of Levante (on the east coast of Spain). This is the case of the Crib Museum in the city of Alicante (containing nativity scenes made in different parts of the world), the museum in Torrevieja (which has the smallest handmade nativity scene in the world), in Albaida and in San Javier (in Murcia).
If you feel like creating your own Christmas crib, what could be better than browsing in the popular street markets that spring up all over Spain throughout the festive season and which sell all the traditional figures to be found in the nativity scene. One of the most famous is the market in the Plaza Mayor square in Madrid (where in addition to the stalls you can see some spectacular nativity scenes, both the one in the Plaza Mayor itself, and at the City Hall and the cathedral of La Almudena). Another famous market is the Fira de Santa Llúcia in Barcelona, immediately opposite the cathedral.
In the popular nativity scenes in the area of Catalonia and the Region of Valencia (and increasingly all over Spain) you'll come across the curious and much loved figure of the caganer, a peasant caught in the act of answering the call of nature. This figure has become so popular that nowadays you can even find caganers made in the likeness of famous people.
Some Spanish towns and villages such as Malaga and Ferrol have even gone so far as to set up crib scenes under the sea, or –in the case of Cordoba– created spectacular chocolate nativity scenes.
Would you like to see a nativity scene made only out of sand? This is also something you can see here in Spain, and an example is the one on the beach of Las Canteras de Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands.
As you can see, you'll find a multitude of ways to discover the importance of these nativity scenes in Spain, and to enjoy looking at all the Christmas figures and landscapes which are the fruit of so many hours of work. These are only a few ideas, but the list is very long: also well worth a visit are the nativity scenes set up in Laguardia (in Álava), Vitoria, Seville, Cáceres, Cuenca, Ciudad Real… What's more, in many areas there are also special routes dedicated to this theme.
Take a trip back to your childhood. Come and see the nativity scenes in Spain.