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Creating a Nativity Belén 

By Elizabeth Gessner

St. Augustine takes great pride in its Spanish heritage, visible in so many ways - the architecture of its buildings, the names of its streets, and in particular the Cathedral-Basilica located across from the Plaza de la Constitucion.As Christmas approaches, there is another tradition that should be added to the many Spanish customs already alive here - the family custom of building a Nativity Belén.
 
Camels cross a bridge in a large Belén on display in Madrid, Spain last year.

For more than five centuries, Spanish children and adults alike have greeted the Christmas season with the building of a Belén, a word that means Bethlehem in Spanish. It’s a Nativity scene that depicts life as it was in Bethlehem at the time of our Lord’s birth.

The Nativity scene tradition originated in Italy with St. Francis in the 13th century and soon spread to Spain and could be seen in many Spanish monasteries or religious houses. Over the years, the Belén became an art form, prized by nobility and royalty, who spent great sums of money on building elaborate scenes with hundreds of figures. But it also became a humble family custom that continues today.

We have no historical records of Nativity scenes in early St. Augustine, but it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t exist - at least in the parish churches.

In Spain, the Belén generally goes up shortly after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) although some families wait until the Christmas Novena (Dec. 16) while others wait until Christmas Eve.

Building the Belén is an exciting project for the entire family. Nativity figures are passed down from generation to generation in Spanish families, so most families already have a collection of figures. But many people enjoy shopping for new figures at specialized stores or the Feria de Navidad, the outdoor Christmas markets that appear all over Spain in December.
 
From her home in St. Augustine, Elizabeth Gessner builds a Nativity Belén that will be displayed this month at the Cathedral-Basilica.

Adapting this custom to life in the United States is not difficult. While the beautiful, artisan-produced Spanish Nativity figures are hard to come by in this country, many American families have at least the basic figures for the Nativity scene, called the Misterio in Spanish - the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. In Spain, the ox and the donkey and an angel are usually included in this basic scene. Then you can add shepherds, villagers and animals to create your little town of Bethlehem, Spanish-style.

A good way to start is by reading the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke (chapters 1-2). Discuss them with your kids, showing them on a map where the events occurred. Do a little research on the Internet. Then have your children draw what they think the first Christmas looked like. Use their drawings to decide what kind of scene you are going to build. A small one in a box? Or a bigger one on a flat surface? Do you want to put your manger in a cave or in a stable?

If you don’t have enough figures for the scene you have in mind, check out the local craft and toy stores. The figures don’t have to be expensive Nativity figures and in fact, they don’t have to be Nativity figures at all. You can adapt any small plastic figure for use in your Belén by some careful snipping and reshaping. Dress them up with new paint and bits of cloth, and your transformed figures are now ready for your Belén.

You don’t have to go out and buy them all at once either. Part of the fun is adding new figures each year. And don’t forget to get lots of animals, because kids love to play with the little sheep, rabbits, chickens and other barnyard critters. You’ll probably also want to add tiny furnishings, utensils and things like food or tools. These can be bought, but they’re also fun to make. Creativity and ingenuity are the secret ingredients!
 
Nativity scenes in Spain can be quite elaborate. This large Belén in Madrid depicts daily life in Bethlehem.

Paint your backdrop, if making a box diorama, and assemble the larger parts of your scene, such as the buildings or the cave. Then add your figures and a few more finishing touches - perhaps sticking in some twigs or bits of moss or vegetation. But don’t put the baby Jesus in until Christmas Eve!

In the days before Christmas, some people read a little prayer, prayed a decade of the rosary, or sang Advent hymns at their Nativity scene in the evening. You can also personalize it by doing things such as giving each child a sheep of their very own to move a tiny bit closer to the manger every day during Advent.

In Spain, the Belén is generally left in place through Epiphany (Jan. 6), which is also known as the Día de Los Reyes and is the day Spanish children get their presents. You can also follow the Spanish custom of visiting other families to see their scenes and opening your home to your friends and neighbors to show off your Belén.

But whatever you decide to do, you will find that reviving this historic tradition in your family will not only connect you with our Spanish past but will help your family build a rich and wonderful tradition that will make Christmas even more special every year.

Elizabeth Gessner is a parishioner of the Cathedral-Basilica in St. Augustine and a Spanish translator. It was through her educational travels to Spain that she learned of the long-established custom of building a Belén. You can read more about the custom on her website at www.SpanishNativity.com.