Spending the holiday season in Spain was an interesting experience. Though everything closed early on December 24, and families spent time together on the traditional Christmas holiday, they do not celebrate it like Christian Americans do.
Instead, Three Kings Day, celebrated on January 5, is the holiday of significance. It is the three kings who visit Spanish cities, bearing gifts the way Santa Claus does in the United States.
As such, the nativity scene, or Belén, is of utmost importance and plays a major role in Christmas festivities in the country.
Our first encounter with the Belén happened on our first night in Spain, when we were walking around Barcelona. Near Puera de Alcala, we found hundreds of tiny nativity scenes people had left, perhaps in some sort of gifting or remembrance tradition. Some were simple, others were fancy. Some had several small pieces, others were a single figurine encompassing Joseph, Mary and Jesus.
I am in no way religious, but it was a beautiful sight, lit up by the glow of holiday lights and candles.
That same evening, in the Barcelona Christmas market, we discovered that most stalls sold a variety of detailed pieces for Belénes. Not just the main characters we’re all familiar with, but “supporting” piece like other villagers, landscape items and other decorative details to enhance the nativity scene.
Soon after, we began to encounter Belénes everywhere.
Nearly every shop window had some sort of Belén. Some were small – just a piece or two – while others took up the entire window display. While window shopping, people weren’t just looking at jewelry or electronics of interest. They were checking out the Belénes too.
In Sevilla, the Belén tradition was particularly rich. Businesses like banks and hotels turned their lobbies into full-sized Belénes, posted signs out front that there was a Belén inside and people stood in line for hours to view them.
One afternoon, we decided to stand in a few of these lines, and we were not disappointed! The best way to describe them is simply to say they were like living history models. In some, professional lighting lit up the scenes, which could be viewed from all angles. (Strangely enough, one Belén, sponsored by Playmobil, didn’t have a nativity scene at all, but rather famous movie scenes including one from Christmas Carol. Go figure.)
As we made our way past the scenes, we kept pointing details out to each other: “Look at the tiny loaves of bread! I love the guy digging up carrots in the field. Look through the window – there’s a tiny angel out back!”
While the traditional scene of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the manger were the main point of the Belénes, some of the scenes were so big we actively had to look to find that one particular detail.
Adding to the intrigue, some of the Belénes came complete with a living king.
This was one of the three kings, the very kings who bring gifts on January 5 instead of Santa Claus on December 25. Kids lined up to see the kings, letters in hand just like they would have done for Santa.
It was an eye-opening way to experience a holiday I’d always celebrated in a very different way. And it was yet another reminder of why it’s so important to continue traveling and learning about cultures and traditions unfamiliar to me.