#Navidad: In Spain the Christmas story begins with Belén

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#Navidad: In Spain the Christmas story begins with Belén
Madrid inaugurated its Belen this week. Photo: Ayuntamiento Madrid

The Local explains the unique history behind Spanish Christmas traditions in our very own Advent calendar.


During advent we are treating our readers to their very own countdown to Navidad, each day providing an insight into one of Spain's Christmas traditions.
So as it's December 1st, let's begin where the whole Christmas story started... Belén.

What does it mean?

Belén is the Spanish word for Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

But it doesn't just refer to the geographical place. 

It is also used to describe a nativity scene, of the sort that you find in people's houses but also on a large scale set up by town councils across Spain. Sometimes they take a traditional format with the Holy Family grouped in a stable surrounded by farm animals and receiving visits from angels, shepherds and the wise men.

But you will also find less tradtional ones, such as the controversial installations usually set up in Barcelona's Placa Saint Jaume, or even live Beléns containing real people and animals.

This year though, because of coronavirus, councils are taking decisions to limit places where crowds might form and therefore are putting them outside with monitored visitors or forsaking them completely. 

  • En navidad ponen un gran belén en el centro del pueblo.

         During Christmas they put up a big nativity scene in the centre of the town.

Each family will have their own Belén, sometimes containing figures that have been passed down generation to generation, while other families make buying a new figure to add to the Belén part of their annual Christmas tradition, visiting one of the stalls at a Christmas market dedicated to selling them 

Photo: AFP



Long before Christmas trees were common place at home and the ritual of decorating them marked the start of the holiday season, tradition in Spain saw families get together to arrange the nativity scene.

Photo: AFP

The word 'belén' also specifically refers to the actual crib or manger of the baby Jesus and with Spain being a traditionally Catholic country, Belén has also become a common female Spanish name.

In Spain there is something extra special to look out for in a nativity scene, something that you won't find anywhere else: the caganer or 'Christmas crapper' but more on that tomorrow.




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