At this time of your in the UK, USA or other European countries Christmas light switch on is a big event. Often celebrated with a local celebrity to push the button. In Spain and Western Europe the Nativity Scene is the main feature in homes and shop windows.
Christmas trees are used but not the main tradition.
Here´s a look at the Nativity in Spain and across the Mediterranean, delving into the origins behind these Christmas scenes.
The Origin of Nativity
Bethlehem is home to everything related to Nativity. As the oldest place of worship in Christianity, the Church of the Nativity is the natural beginning of the Christmas story.
This church was first built in 325 and is traditionally understood to be the birthplace of Jesus. This site has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012.
Church of the Nativity
I visited the Church of the Nativity Bethlehem in December 2016. As you can see in the photo below I am at the 14 pointed silver star. The exact place marked as the birthplace of Jesus. Inscribed in Latin, it reads: Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary
This area of the church is called the Grotto of Nativity, an underground space is accessed by steps from the churches altar.
Tradition of Nativity Scenes
The first Nativity Scenes to be recognised are from 1223 in Central Italy. Just North East of Rome in the hilltop town of Greccio , Saint Francis of Assisi chose this location to re enact the nativity story. After visiting the Holy Land in 1221, he wanted to bring Bethlehem to share with others who couldn´t make the long pilgrimage.
Oldest Nativity in Italy
This tradition spread across Italy over the 13th century but later was replaced by static nativity scenes around the 14th century. The oldest Nativity in Italy is located in Florence inside the beautiful Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Dating back to the end of the 13th century
However the oldest Nativity figures were sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1291. Now they are in Rome at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, inside the basilica’s museum.
I visited Florence last year but didn´t manage to spot this Nativity scene, perhaps they only have it on display over the festive season. If you do visit make sure you book tickets online for Florence Cathedral as queues for the visit and the belltower can be a little overwhelming.
The World´s Oldest Nativity Scene
In Germany nativity traditions are also important in local culture. Usually German nativity scenes are made from wood. The oldest nativity scene is located in a Bavarian monastery in the village of Flussen. It´s manager is from the mid 13th century.
In Cologne you can do a Nativity Scene Tour in the month of December too.
Nativity in Spain
Although the first static nativity scenes are dated in the 13th century. It wasn´t until much later that nativity scenes where made with loose individual figures. Like the ones we recognise today.
María Amalia had a Nativity in Spain compromised of 7,000 pieces. Shipped over from Naples, this was the first ´Belen´ in the country and it created the tradition in Spain.
Did you know the Spanish word for Betheleham is Belen? Which is also their name for a Nativity Scene.
Other important traditions across Spain are Christmas Markets. At these festive stalls you can purchase new figures for your Nativity scene each year. In Barcelona Fira de Nadal outside the Cathedral is the most well known one.
Yet there is also another Christmas market outside Sagrada Familia which is equally atmospheric although less crowded.
Nativity Scene Museum
The Museo de Belenes is an entire building focused on Nativity in Spain. In the town of Mollina, Malaga province. This large modern museum is open all year round but gets particularly busy in December and January.
To get there, drive along the A-92 to Mollina. Take exit 138. This is located between Estepa and Antequera. The Museum is visible from the motorway and very easy to get to from there. Follow the signposts after the motorway exit.
Museo de Belenes
September to December, the museum is open from 10am every day.
- Mondays is free to go in. However they are only open from 10am to 11.30am
- Tuesday to Friday 10am to 2.00pm 4.00pm to 7.30pm
- Saturday, Sundays and Bank Holidays 10am to 8.00pm
Address: Polígono Casería del Rey, Autovía A-92, Salida nº 138, 29532 Mollina, Málaga
More information: Museo de Belenes Mollina
Ruta de Belenes in Granada
Every year in Granada there are many different Nativity Scenes to visit. Last year in the official competition 35 Nativity scenes participated. (there are more thant don´t compete) the first prize is 5000 euros.
In Spanish it´s called the Ruta de Belenes.
- Ayuntamiento – Granada Town Hall. (photo above) This is inside in the patio. (Address: Plaza del Carmen) Open from 10am-2pm & 5pm-9pm until 5th January.
- Vecinos del Sagrario at next to Fuente de las Batallas. 11am-2pm and 5.30pm-9pm
- Mayores association at San Matías 11. Until 6th January. Open Noon-2pm & 6pm7pm (Closed 24th & 31st Dec)
- Palace of Condes de Gabia at Plaza de los Girones until 7th Jan Open from 11am-2pm & evenings 6pm-9pm
- Caja Rural Bank at Av Don Bosco Open 6pm- 9pm daily until 6th January (closed 24th, 31st Dec & 5th Jan)
- Angel Custodio at San Anton 38 from 6pm-9pm. Holidays open from 11.30-2pm. Sale of traditional sweets too.
- Casa Jaen – Calle Jardines. The Casa de Jaen en Granada have a nativity scene inside their courtyard.
Spanish Nativity Traditions
Sometimes alongside the Nativity Scene traditional sweets are on sale, made in the local Convents. For many it´s a main source of income for the year.
In Granada some of the most well-known ones are:
- In the Albaicin at Calle Zafra from 11am-2pm until 6th Janaury the Nativity scene has the Alhambra included.
- Casa de los Pisa close to Plaza Nueva at C/Convalencia Open from 10am to 2pm & 5pm-7.30pm daily (closed 24th, 31st Dec & 5th Jan) (Also known as Archivo Museo de San Juan de Dios)
- Hospital San Rafael on C/San Juan de Dios from 10.30am-1.30pm & 5.30pm-9pm until 7th January
- Convent of the Carmelitas Descalzas at Plaza San Juan de la Cruz (just off Pavaneras) 6th to 19th December open evenings from 5.30pm-8.30pm and then from 20th December open mornings 11am-1.30pm and evening 5.30pm-8.30pm.
- San Juan Letran Church on Avenida Constitution from 6pm-8pm daily
Nativity Scenes in Andalusia
Pinos Puente The amazing Nativity scene made by Alberto Sanchez over 25 years is open from 1st December until 6th January 11.30 til 2pm & 4pm until 9pm. Check more details on: Facebook – Belen Artesano – Alberto Sanchez
Huetor Tajar The nativity scene at the large suare is on Plaza Gregorio Pelaez is open from 5pm-9pm.
Trevelez set up a Nativity scene each year based on local traditions. It is at Calle Carcel next to the Hermitage of San Antonio. It´s open from 11am-10pm everyday.
Other places to see Nativity in Spain
- Almeria On the main street, the Rambla they set up 70 stalls for the citys Christmas market. It´s open 10am until 11pm. The Official Nativity scene is on Plaza Vieja until 6th January.
- Malaga Find out more about the Annual Ruta Belenes in Malaga from the Tourist Office.
- Cordoba – More details on this website Belenes in Cordoba
- Seville have an online guide to the Nativity scenes this year Guía de Belenes de Sevilla